Beckner reopens benefits debate in Hillsborough County

01/21/09 Mitch E. Perry
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On Thursday, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner says he’ll bring up the idea of giving health care benefits to the unmarried domestic partners of county employees.

Nadine Smith is executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida. On Tuesday afternoon her group sent out a mass e-mail to supporters urging them to call and email county commissioners in support of Beckner’s idea.

But just by calling for a discussion, Beckner has touched off a backlash of sorts.

Late last week, Terry Kemple, president of the Tampa Bay Christian public policy group Community Issues Council, issued an e-mail to supporters telling them to contact commissioners to kill the idea.

One reason, Kemple wrote, was because it was irresponsible at this economically challenging time. That’s what County Commissioner Mark Sharpe thinks as well.

Beckner disagrees. He says research will show that it will cost the county little, if anything, to bring the issue forward.

The other reason Kemple told his supporters to put pressure on board members was because last November, Hillsborough County voters overwhelmingly voted for Amendment 2, which would keep marriage between a man and a woman. Kemple wrote that those voters also voted against the benefits associated with marriage, and that this “ seems to me to be othing more than a back door attempt to establish those benefits through his office as County Commissioner.”

To Nadine Smith of Equality Florida, that argument is a bit rich. Smith frequently debated Kemple last year on the merits of Amendment 2. She says one thing Kemple has always said was that the initiative would not take away domestic partnership protections.

In fact, the openly gay Beckner says he’s approaching the matter as a boost to economic development, and nothing else.

Nearly five years ago, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio signed an executive order extending health care benefits to unmarried domestic partners of city employees, including same-sex couples.

At the time, the mayor said it was the fulfillment of a campaign promise made a year before. She said she would change the law in Tampa after the shooting death of Tampa Police Officer, Lois Marrero back in 2001. Marrero’s domestic partner was denied pension benefits. Hillsborough County responded to the mayor’s move by voting to prohibit county staff from studying the idea.

Kevin Beckner says now is the time to at least talk about the idea. But colleague Mark Sharpe says that with the economy is in such dire straits, the only thing the county will be doing to its employees is cutting benefits, not adding to them.

Beckner plans on bringing the issue up at Thursday morning’s meeting.

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