Thursday, December 22, 2011

HB 4770 and Domestic Partner Benefits: What’s This All About?

House Bill 4770 (now Public Act 297 of 2011) prohibits all public employers—that is, those employed by the state government, local governments, school districts, and all public universities and colleges, as well as others—from offering any domestic partner benefits (both same-sex partner benefits and opposite sex partner benefits) in their public employee compensation packages.

This bill/act has drawn opposition, on the grounds of (1) discrimination and (2) the desire to attract and retain talent in Michigan, regardless of sexual orientation. Despite the attempt by some to paint this as a social issue, it really is a matter of fiscal accountability to taxpayers and protecting the will of the voters who changed the Michigan Constitution in 2004. HB 4770 provides for the prohibition of live-in benefits for all public employees as allowed under the constitution, which was our intent all along.

The following excerpt from the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency “Legislative Analysis” gives a good background on the legal reasoning we relied upon.

“On November 2, 2004, Michigan voters approved an initiative called Proposal 04-2, to add a "defense of marriage" amendment to the State Constitution. Fifty-nine (59) percent of the electors voted yes, while 41 percent voted no. The proposal went into effect on December 18, 2004. With this constitutional amendment, Michigan joins 30 states that have banned legal recognition of same-sex unions in state constitutions.

Proposal 04-2 makes it unconstitutional for the state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. It is found in Article I, Section 25, and reads:

§ 25 Marriage.

To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.

On March 16, 2005, in response to a state representative's request for an opinion regarding the marriage amendment's effect on the City of Kalamazoo's ability to provide same-sex domestic partner health insurance benefits to its employees, Attorney General Mike Cox issued a formal opinion, concluding that the city's policy violated the amendment. Specifically, the attorney general ruled that "Const 1963, art 1, section 25 prohibits state and local governmental entities from conferring benefits on their employees on the basis of a 'domestic partnership' agreement that is characterized by reference to the attributes of a marriage." OAG No. 7,171 (March 16, 2005), 2005 Mich Reg 5, p 35.

On March 21, 2005, National Pride at Work, Inc., filed, in the Michigan Supreme Court, a declaratory judgment action against the Governor, seeking a declaration that the marriage amendment did not bar public employers from providing health insurance benefits to their employee's qualified same-sex domestic partners. The Attorney General, acting on the Governor's behalf, moved to dismiss the suit, on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Because then-Governor Jennifer Granholm disagreed with the Attorney General's interpretation, she obtained independent counsel, and withdrew the Attorney General's motion. She then filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs' position. Plaintiffs moved for summary disposition, arguing that the amendment does not prohibit public employers from voluntarily providing the benefits. The trial court agreed, saying: "By voluntarily providing domestic partner health care benefits to an employer-defined group of people, the plaintiffs' employers are not "recognizing a marriage or similar union." The Attorney General appealed the trial court's decision. The Court of Appeals then reversed the trial court's decision and granted a stay, concluding that the amendment prohibited public employers from granting health benefits to their employees' same-sex domestic partners, and also granting leave to appeal the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that throughout the campaign to pass Proposal 04-2 (both before the Board of State Canvassers during the public hearing to certify their petition, and in written campaign documents), the proposal's supporters—Citizens for the Protection of Marriage, a committee sponsored by Michigan Christian Citizens Alliance—repeatedly stated that the constitutional amendment would not prohibit public employers from entering into contracts with their employees to provide domestic partner health care benefits. Instead, they said that Proposal 04-2 was only about marriage. For example, the attorney for Citizens for the Protection of Marriage, Eric Doster, assured the board that their proposal would not bar public employers from providing benefits to their employees' same-sex domestic partners, saying: "There would certainly be nothing to preclude a public employer from extending [health care] benefits, if they so chose, as a matter of contract between employer and employee, to…domestic dependent benefits…" and, "An employer, as a matter of contract between employer and employee, can offer benefits to whomever the employer wants to…", and "I'd hate to be repetitive, but again, that's a matter of contract between an employer and employee. And if the employer wanted to do that…I don't see how this language affects that. If the language just said 'marriage' or 'spouse,' then I would agree with you. But there's nothing in this language that I would interpret that would say that that somehow would go beyond that."

Plaintiffs, arguing that health coverage is a contractual benefit of employment, and not of marriage, also demonstrated that in an August 2004 poll of 705 likely voters, 65 percent of the voters disapproved of barring cities and counties from providing domestic-partner benefits, and 63 percent disapproved of prohibiting state universities from doing so.

On May 7, 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, interpreted the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage to prohibit employers from extending health care benefits to their employees' same-sex domestic partners. (Those voting to bar health benefits were Justices Stephen Markman, Clifford Taylor, Elizabeth Weaver, Maura Corrigan, and Robert Young; those offering a dissent were Justices Marilyn Kelly and Michael Cavanagh.) In a 34-page opinion whose analysis (among other things) parses the 'marriage amendment's' phrases "similar union," "recognized," "only agreement," "for any purpose," and benefits of marriage," Justice Stephen Markman advanced the argument that the meaning of the intrinsic language of the constitutional amendment, is, on its face, plain. It prohibits the recognition of unions similar to marriage "for any purpose." In his interpretation, the phrase "for any purpose" modified the word "similar." Concluding that marriage and domestic partnerships were similar, he held that the 'marriage amendment' "prohibits public employers from providing health insurance benefits to their employees' qualified same-sex domestic partners."

. . .

Since 1850, Michigan has extended constitutional autonomy to its public universities. Michigan differs from the majority of states in that it has no statewide agency, board or commission responsible for the coordination of higher education, and all four-year institutions have constitutional autonomy. Constitutional autonomy provides for vesting of exclusive management and control of the institution in the governing board. Michigan's language regarding constitutional autonomy, which can be found in all four state constitutions, is designed to keep the legislature from getting involved in areas considered to be the domain of the faculty and university administration. (Indeed, the provision was added to the state constitution in the 1800s because members of the legislature were reportedly firing faculty at the University of Michigan).

In 1963, Michigan rewrote its most recent constitution and once again included constitutional status for all universities in the state. Article VIII, Section 3 states reads: "The power of the institutions of higher education provided in this constitution to supervise their respective institutions and control and direct the expenditures of the institutions funds shall not be limited to this section."

Further, at Article VIII, Sections 5 and 6 of the Michigan Constitution, university governing boards are granted "general supervision of its institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution's funds."

Based on this language, and advancing the argument that market forces decide best what educational services a particular university should offer, individual university boards of regents or trustees have the power to set tuition and to determine how their state appropriations will be spent.

While university presidents and trustees have management autonomy, public universities are public employers, and many of them extend health care benefits, as employee benefits, to the same-sex partners of their faculty (as well as to their dependents), not as domestic partners, but rather as "other eligible individuals." Additionally, some local government officials also extend health care coverage to domestic partners, dropping the "same sex" and adopting the wording "other qualified adults."

Finally, in 2004, before the "defense of marriage" amendment to the State Constitution passed, the Office of the State Employer and the state employees represented by the United Auto Workers Local 6000, reached an agreement to include same-sex domestic partner health-insurance benefits in the benefit package for state employee members of the union. However, the parties agreed not to submit that proposed contract to the Michigan Civil Service Commission until the Supreme Court made its ruling, in order to ensure that the language of the proposed contract did not violate the marriage amendment. More than six years later, on January 26, 2011, the Michigan Civil Service Commission approved the negotiated benefit package, so that the state now extends health care benefits, as benefits of employment, to all of a state employee's qualified domestic partners (whether same sex or opposite sex) and to their dependents.”

The majority in the legislature believed that the Civil Service Commission approval went beyond its authority under the Constitution and HB 4770 was and is intended to send the message that the will of the people as expressed at the voting booth in amending the Constitution should be followed.

P.S. Many of the issues we deal with are much more complicated than can be addressed in a catchy slogan or 30 second sound bite. Obviously, this has been one of them.

1 comment:

  1. There is some disagreement whether HB 4770 covers university employees or not. It does so explicitly in the bill, but the Constitutional autonomy granted to universities may override that language. I don't attempt to anwwer that question in this posting.