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Councilor Thomas Crowder said he favors partner benefits, and depending on how the election comes out, he could be the one to push for them next year.

Raleigh council elections could put domestic partner benefits on the table 

click to enlarge Rodger Koopman - PHOTO COURTESY OF LIISA OGBURN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo courtesy of Liisa Ogburn Photography
  • Rodger Koopman

Depending on how its city council elections come out next month, Raleigh could be on the verge of joining the ranks of government employers offering health insurance and other group benefits to the domestic partners of their employees, including same-sex partners.

In our campaign surveys, the Independent asked all the candidates whether they would support the city extending benefits to domestic partners, including gay and lesbian partners, on the same basis as they're now offered to spouses—meaning the employee pays for them. The results:

Four of the six candidates for the two at-large seats were in favor, while a fifth said the idea "seems fair" but needs more public debate. Only one was opposed.

In the two contested races for district seats, two of the three candidates for the District B seat said yes; in District A, one of the two candidates was generally in support but stopped short of an outright endorsement. The other candidates didn't answer the question.

Mayor Charles Meeker and District D Councilor Thomas Crowder said yes. They're both running unopposed for re-election. District E Councilor Philip Isley, also running unopposed, said he doesn't know that much about the issue but said, "If it comes to the table, I'll certainly take a look at it."

Currently, just six government employers in North Carolina offer domestic partner benefits, according to state and national gay rights groups. The town of Chapel Hill led the way in 1995; Greensboro is the most recent addition this year. The others are the City of Durham, Durham County, Orange County and Carrboro.

All but Greensboro offer benefits to straight as well as gay partners if they meet the eligibility criteria for a "committed partnership," according to the data supplied by the national Human Rights Campaign. Such requirements typically include a signed affidavit that the partnership is exclusive and has lasted for a minimum time (commonly a year or more). Evidence that the couple has a joint mortgage or lease and joint bank accounts or other financial arrangements (wills, powers of attorney) is also required in some jurisdictions.

Nationally, at least 145 local and county governments and 13 state governments offer domestic partner benefits of some kind, the HRC says. In the private sector, HRC counts 9,375 private employers that do, including a majority of the biggest ones—269 of the Fortune 500. Major North Carolina employers with domestic partner benefits include Wachovia, BB&T, SAS, Lowe's, and such political notables as the law firm of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice—where former Gov. Jim Hunt is a partner—and a 2007 addition, Progress Energy.

Usually, benefits for a partner or children aren't free to the employees, who pay for at least part of the coverage. The main advantage is access to a large group policy with lower rates—and more coverage—than is available to individual buyers. That makes it "a low-cost, high-value employment benefit [and] the norm among employers committed to their LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] employees," says HRC.

How do partner benefits work? Chapel Hill's program offers health and dental insurance to spouses, partners and their children, says Valerie Meicher, director of human resources development. Sick leave to care for a family member or child is also extended equally, as is time off under the federal Family and Maternity Leave Act. The town also applies its policy against employees reporting to spouses equally—there's no reporting to a partner either. The town pays 100 percent of employee's costs and 50 percent for all dependents, Meicher said.

Chapel Hill also has a domestic partners registry for its residents, gay or straight. The registry could offer some small legal advantages to gay partners, since they cannot legally marry in North Carolina, says Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality NC. But Palmquist cautions against "thinking that domestic partners is another term for marriage." His point: "Marriage in our society has hundreds of legal benefits. Domestic partnerships give you four or five [benefits]."

Chapel Hill also requires employees to sign an affidavit and supply evidence—such as bank accounts or powers of attorney—to show the partners' lives and finances are jointly maintained, Meicher said. Currently, just three employees and their partners qualify.

In Raleigh, the four at-large candidates expressing clear support for domestic partner benefits were incumbent Russ Stephenson and three challengers: Paul Anderson, Will Best and Helen Tart. Tart added that some details would have to be worked out, including a clear definition of partnership. A fifth candidate, Mary-Ann Baldwin, said the idea "seems fair," but she'd want to consult worker representatives and hear the public before making up her mind.

Only challenger David Williams, the one Republican in the nominally nonpartisan race, said he's opposed. (Best is an unaffiliated voter; the other four candidates are Democrats.)

click to enlarge Will Best
  • Will Best

Best, a former staffer in the city's planning department who now works for the state, was outspoken on the issue. "We—Raleigh—needs to move into the 21st century with everything," he said. "It's not a religious issue or a partisan issue. It is simply the fact that if you work for the city of Raleigh, you deserve and should receive benefits and so should your partner or spouse."

In the two contested district races, the results were mixed. In District A, incumbent Tommy Craven, a Republican, didn't return our survey or a follow-up e-mail and call. Challenger Nancy McFarlane, an unaffiliated voter, stopped just short of outright support. As a pharmacist, McFarlane said, she sees people all the time whose health suffers because they lack insurance benefits—and others who are trapped in jobs they don't want because they fear losing their benefits. "We need to address an equitable system for all people where they have the same availability of decent health care ... no matter who they are."

In District B, both of the Democrats running backed domestic partner benefits. Incumbent Jessie Taliaferro added that she'd want to look at other such programs to see how best to do one in Raleigh. Challenger Rodger Koopman said not offering such benefits is discriminatory. "Gay and lesbian people work alongside us in all kinds of jobs," Koopman said. "It's time we stop all forms of discrimination."Republican challenger Angel Menendez didn't answer our survey or follow-ups.

Mayor Meeker has been on the record for several years in favor of domestic partner benefits. He repeated that stand this year, saying the city should do what other large employers do to attract the best possible workforce: "That is, to offer domestic partner benefits to employees in the same manner as married spouses."

Meeker said he didn't think any city employee, gay or straight, had ever raised the question of partner benefits at City Hall. City Manager Russell Allen said he has had "one or possibly two requests from an employee over the years."

Councilor Crowder said he favors partner benefits, and depending on how the election comes out—whether there are five votes in favor on the eight-member body, that is—he could be the one to push for them next year.

Crowder pointed out that, since employees pay now for their spouses and children and presumably would for their partners, a progressive policy wouldn't cost the city much, if anything. But it could save some employees money. "It seems like a way to capitalize on the free market by letting people buy into [the city's] group policy at favorable rates if they want to," he said.

For more on Pride and LGBT issues, see Steven Petrow's opinion column, "Inside Sen. Craig's closet."

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