Hillsborough Commission won't explore domestic partner benefits

01/22/09 Seán Kinane
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In a 5-2 vote today by the Hillsborough County Commission, county staff continues to be forbidden from researching the option of offering domestic partner benefits to county employees – a measure originally championed by former Commissioner Ronda Storms.

Recently elected Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he made the motion to get rid of the 2004 rule against discussing domestic partnership benefits because it was the only way for the conversation on equal healthcare rights for county employees to proceed.

Contrary to the bulk of the discussion from other commissioners, the issue was not about whether Hillsborough County should adopt domestic partnership benefits, Beckner said, but whether the commission should get rid of the Ronda Storms-era ban on even considering it.

Commissioner Jim Norman says that because Beckner was being direct, he deserved a direct response to the motion.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe quoted President Barack Obama in asking for American families and the government to tighten their belts because of the economy. Sharpe made an impassioned speech about why he opposed Beckner’s motion, calling it “irresponsible” considering the county’s budget cuts.

Sharpe told Beckner they should work together to address the healthcare issue separately from the issue of domestic partnerships. Commission Chair Ken Hagan and members Al Higginbotham and Kevin White voted against Beckner’s motion to lift the ban. Beckner asked Christina Swanson, the county’s director of employee benefits, to estimate how much a domestic partner benefit would cost the county or how many employees would take advantage of it.

Swanson says other counties spend up to 1.25% more on health benefits when they add on domestic partner benefits. She also says that because of the rising cost of health insurance and budget problems, the health benefits of all employees may be cut.

Both County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee said Hillsborough is legally bound to the 2004 action of the Board to forbid any study of domestic partnership benefits until it is overturned. The only support Beckner got came from Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who supported Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio when she extended domestic partner benefits to city employees, though she said that newly-elected Beckner’s timing was “atrocious.”

Before the vote on Beckner’s motion failed, five members of the public spoke against it, while four spoke in favor. Several members of the audience wore a sticker that read “Explore Equality.” Cathy James says that most of the employees at her company that receive domestic partner benefits are in opposite-sex partnerships. Of those who opposed Beckner’s motion, some cited economic concerns, while others, like Donna Koonse, stated moral reasons.

After the vote, Beckner said he thinks the County Commission “should be able explore issues without being handcuffed by the decision of prior Boards.”

The Rev. Phyllis Hunt, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in Tampa, said she is “deeply saddened” that the County Commission would not lift the limits on exploring domestic partner health care benefits.

The county will renegotiate its insurance deal this year, but after Thursday’s vote, domestic partner health benefits will not be part of the package.

WMNF coverage of Amendment 2 proponents saying that it would not affect domestic partner benefits

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