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Wednesday, March 16,2011

Equal rights don't come with price tag

by Kyle Melinn

I understand Michigan has this crater-sized budget hole and everyone is getting nixed. I get it, I get it. That’s just the way it is.


What I don’t understand is why conservative legislators are getting away with using these tough times as an excuse, again, to treat its public employees differently based on whom they sleep with.


Several months ago, public employee unions, following the lead of some progressive state universities, found contract language that allows committed same-sex couples to enjoy the same health benefits as opposite-sex couples.


Under the language, the children being raised by these same-sex couples would be covered, too. Why not? A single male state employee marrying a woman with two minor children from a previous relationship is allowed to bring the new family of four under the state insurance.


The state Civil Service Commission agreed, ruling in January that a committed relationship is a committed relationship.


Last week, the Michigan Senate voted with the required two-thirds supermajority to repeal the CSC’s decision. They claimed to buy into the Gov. Rick Snyder argument that the state can’t afford the estimated $6 million price.


A House committee kicked the measure around Tuesday, but with Republicans 11 votes short of the same two-third supermajority in the House, the measure, SCR 9, isn’t going to slide through the lower chamber with the same speed.


Nor should it. By trying to deny benefits to couples in a same-sex relationship due to budget constraints, the Republicans in the Legislature are putting a price tag on civil rights, a cost for equality.


Does that mean the same party that, by and large, supported the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage back in 2004 would have signed off on the CSC’s decision under better financial situations?


Would Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette let this slide through? He wouldn’t bother asking a court if the agreement ran afoul of the Michigan constitutional amendment even if the state had money to burn? Doubtful.


Michigan’s $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion budget hole is a convenient crutch.


Republicans are leaning on it so they don’t have to dive into the social issues most voters (even Tea Party supporters) want left on the back burner.


It’s a poor one because it marries two issues that should never be united — money and civil rights. The Republicans are saying, "We’ll recognize your relationship when the state can afford it … . Your relationship is valid when the state’s got money to spend."


How twisted it that? Isn’t that the equivalent of a poll tax? "You, Mr. African American, can vote if you help pay for the cost of running this expanded election that we were so good to offer to you."


I know the CSC decision extends benefits to opposite-sex live-ins for only one year. You could argue that until these couples legitimize their relationship through a state-endorsed contract called marriage, benefits shouldn’t be extended.


But what about gay and lesbian couples who have vowed to love one until death do them part? These same couples who have lived up to that commitment for multiple years? We’re going to deny equal rights because both individuals have the same set of sex organs? Really? Do we deny any other legal contract in this state on such a criterion?


Voters constitutionally banned their ability to marry, so what do they do? Make them sign a civil union? Voters blocked that, too.


So until the federal courts or voters reverse this reactionary marriage ban (and one or the other will happen in the next 20 years) these types of extending-benefits-to-live-ins agreements are the only way public employers can entice their talented gay and lesbian employees to stay.


That benefits everyone. We want the most talented people possible protecting us from criminals, teaching our children, managing our tax dollars, protecting our health. Who they spend the night with is immaterial. It’s none of our business.


And whether that cost is $6 million, $60 million or $6 billion doesn’t matter. If the state is going to offer health insurance to the partner and children of a married employee, it should do the same to a gay employee’s partner and their children.


And if the cost of supplying benefits to all employees is breaking the bank, then make concessions and cuts to all employees, together. Raise the co-pays and deductibles for everybody, together.


I believe Snyder is serious about not leaving anybody behind when addressing the budget. It’s too bad he’s letting conservatives pull the shades over his eyes on this one. Our talented gay and lesbian public employees are left standing at the station.


(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He can be reached at melinn@ lansingcitypulse.com.)

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