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Benefits plan stirs resistance

State employees could get domestic partner health benefits under a proposal scheduled to be considered Wednesday by public employee benefit administrators.

But an anti-gay marriage advocate is objecting to the idea and accusing the university system, which requested the change, of trying to get a controversial public policy change enacted under the radar by a body that does not answer to voters.

“If nobody’s watching, they’ll squeeze it on by,” said Richard Ziser, chairman of the conservative group Nevada Concerned Citizens. “They’re trying to backdoor something that goes against the public policy that’s already been established.”

Ziser led the group that succeeded in passing an amendment to the Nevada Constitution banning gay marriage in 2002. He said the initiative’s passage signaled that Nevada voters do not want “marriage benefits being given to something other than a legally married couple.”

In a letter submitted in April, the eight presidents of the state’s public higher education institutions asked the Public Employee Benefits Board to change administrative regulations to allow “reciprocal beneficiary coverage,” which would extend the state benefits currently available to spouses to “spouse-like relationships,” including same-sex partnerships.

Such benefits are necessary to the university system’s efforts to hire quality faculty and staff, the letter said.

“The lack of reciprocal beneficiary benefits is a growing obstacle to our recruitment and retention efforts,” the letter said. “This is a problem that can be fixed. Offering reciprocal beneficiary benefits will be a highly cost-effective measure to enable us to compete more successfully in the region and the nation.”

Thirteen other states offer such benefits, the letter said, putting Nevada at a competitive disadvantage for hiring public employees.

The university presidents’ letter contends that the cost of offering domestic partner benefits would send a positive signal at minimal cost.

According to studies from other states, when such benefits were made available, fewer than 1 percent of state employees took advantage of them, and the majority of those who did were opposite-sex partners, not gay couples.

The two universities and five community colleges in Nevada have to compete with all of the state colleges and universities in California, Montana, Iowa and Illinois, which offer health benefits to domestic partners, according to the petition by the presidents.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, President David Ashley said some universities are using the benefits as a way to attract faculty.

“I think for any major university these days, it is a very important point of competition,” he said.

Ashley came to UNLV last year from the University of California, Merced, where, he said, only two or three of the school’s roughly 350 faculty and staff members used the available health insurance benefit for domestic partners.

He said he will testify for the proposal at the meeting Wednesday in Carson City, with other university system leaders.

Richard Morgan, dean of the law school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he also plans on testifying during Wednesday’s meeting. He said faculty members at the law school have seriously considered leaving because of the lack of benefits for domestic partners.

“I can tell you we’re not in the best competitive situation,” he said.

University system Chancellor Jim Rogers said he was not involved with the push by the presidents, but he’s “very much in favor of it” because of the competitive benefit.

University system Chief Counsel Bart Patterson said the university system presidents chose to go to the Public Employee Benefits Board because it was the proper authority to oversee such changes.

But in a letter sent to the members of the board Saturday, Ziser accused the university presidents of trying to enact by other means a public policy change that Nevada voters have rejected.

“The marriage amendment … is a clearly stated directive of the public policy in this state,” Ziser wrote.

In addition to the voter-approved constitutional amendment, he noted, two elected bodies, the Legislature and the Board of Regents, have declined to recognize domestic partnerships for the purpose of extending benefits.

A bill sponsored by Assemblyman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, failed to pass in the 2001 legislative session.

Although Ziser said the “legislation was defeated,” Parks said it died in committee because lawmakers did not get around to it. That bill would have allowed the extension of employment benefits to unmarried partners.

Parks, the only openly gay state legislator, noted that a bill passed in 2003 allowing non-relatives such as same-sex partners to have hospital visitation rights and oversee end-of-life decisions. He said he still hopes one day to get legislation passed on employment benefits.

Parks argued that public employee bargaining units have the authority to extend benefits to partners. Clark County School District employees have done it already.

“State statute is silent on who may receive benefits,” he said.

Regents debated extending benefits to domestic partners during a meeting in December 2005 but did not make a decision. Patterson said they decided they could not take action because it was out of their jurisdiction.

But Ziser said the regents were concerned about handling a political hot potato. He contended his supporters waged a postcard campaign that caused the regents to drop reconsidering the proposal in 2006.

Ziser said that if the state recognizes a non-marriage relationship as being equivalent to marriage, children in public schools will be taught that homosexual relationships have the same status as traditional marriage.

Gay rights advocate Lee Plotkin, who serves on the state Equal Rights Commission, accused Ziser of being “in the hate business.”

Plotkin said polls increasingly show Americans favoring “marriage equality” for gays and lesbians.

“It’s the year 2007, and Mr. Ziser needs to catch up with a good deal of the American public and realize these are law-abiding, taxpaying citizens,” Plotkin said. “It’s high time they (the state) had the ability to recruit and retain quality employees regardless of sexual orientation.”

The nine-member Public Employee Benefits Board is a part-time appointed body that administers a $400 million annual budget.

The state will contribute $557.30 per month per employee for health insurance starting July 1. That amount will increase to $626.16 per employee per month starting July 1, 2008.

An employee who wants to provide health insurance coverage for a spouse under the self-funded plan will be required to pay $182.48 a month for a low-deductible benefit starting July 1. The cost is $79.72 per month to cover a spouse under a high-deductible plan.

The plan is revised annually in July and contribution rates can change.

Review-Journal writer Sean Whaley contributed to this report.

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