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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Same-sex domestic partner health benefits are in play as part of Minnesota state employee contract talks, reopening a debate that raged at the Capitol a decade ago.
Republican lawmakers drew attention to the potential contract language Tuesday by circulating an offer sheet between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and the largest public employee union. The proposed two-year pacts haven’t been finalized, but the benefits were part of the “state’s best offer” put before the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
AFSCME and the administration are headed for mediation, because the union objected to increases in insurance premiums and other provisions contained in the offer. For that reason, both parties at the bargaining table declined comment.
Inclusion of medical and dental benefits for same-sex partners of state workers could leave the negotiated deal in doubt once it moves to the ratification stage, which involves the GOP-led Legislature. When Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, was in office, domestic partner benefits for state workers were added to contracts negotiated by his administration and were briefly implemented. But by the time those deals were ratified, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in charge and same-sex benefits had been stripped out.
Under the proposed language, same-sex domestic partners would be treated as dependents and would be eligible for family insurance coverage.
Sen. Mike Parry, R-Owatonna, has been pressing the administration — without success — to keep lawmakers apprised of the talks. Parry said state officials shouldn’t assume lawmakers will rubber-stamp the final deals, and he said the domestic partner benefits pose a problem.
“We believe the governor should not be addressing social issues in collective bargaining contracts,” Parry said. “We believe that that’s the Legislature’s responsibility and not up to the governor, as he has done with some of his executive orders, to try to go around the Legislature.”
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, called administration’s offer to extend such benefits “troubling.”
Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis said he wants the administration to stand strong and move ahead with offering the benefits. Dibble, who is gay, said there doesn’t have to be a repeat of the legislative fight that resulted in the revocation of benefits.
“Society has come miles and miles from where they were back then and have a fuller understanding that gay and lesbian families are part of every community, every neighborhood, every church, every workplace,” Dibble said.
A Nevada board recently adopted a policy allowing domestic partners to qualify for the same level of benefits as employee spouses. But the issue has continued to be divisive elsewhere. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer sparked an uproar and a lawsuit a couple of years ago when she canceled domestic partner benefits for state employees. And in December, Michigan Gov. Rick Synder signed a law banning the benefits for public workers in his state.
These will be the first Minnesota contracts negotiated under Dayton, a gay-rights supporter who took office in Jan. 2011. Minnesota’s contracts with its state employee unions technically expired last June. The new ones would run through summer of 2013.
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