Cities on hold on gay benefit rights

Municipalities will take cue from Supreme Court ruling

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2006

City officials on the Kenai Peninsula are in a holding pattern to see what the state is going to do about gay-partner employment benefits.

Last fall, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that denying gay couples the public employee benefits married couples receive violates the state constitution’s equal-protection clause.

Alaska’s Constitution, however, bans gay marriage, and the court ruling sets up an administrative nightmare for local government benefits administration, city officials say.

Legislators are considering a constitutional amendment that says rights, benefits and obligations shall only be extended or assigned to the union of a man and a woman in marriage.

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider a resolution — HJR 32 — on the issue next week. A similar measure was introduced by the Senate Judiciary.

The employee benefits involved include health and life insurance, retirement and death benefits.

Soldotna City Manager Tom Boedeker said he is “not aware of any city workers who have expressed interest” in the issue, and said the city’s health insurance benefit is provided by the state Political Subdivision Health Plan through Aetna.

“The state decides who’s covered and who isn’t. We can’t change that,” Boedeker said.

Currently Soldotna pays the $5,820 annual premium for health care for employee-only coverage and pays $11,378 per year for employee and spouse coverage. Married employees pay the remaining $1,500 per year for employee and spouse coverage.

Soldotna employees’ retirement benefits are part of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and are not amendable by the city. Retirement for PERS is calculated by the state, Boedeker said.

“I don’t have a clue how (the Supreme Court ruling) would impact that ... or if it would cause rates to go up,” he said.

Kenai City Attorney Cary Graves told city council members he attended a state bar association meeting on the Supreme Court ruling and said, “Everyone is waiting for a supplemental Supreme Court decision.”

Kenai Finance Director Larry Semmens said Kenai employees are covered by Blue Cross insurance, which decides who is covered and who is not.

“No one has come and asked for coverage (under the new ruling),” Semmens said.

A Colorado-based conservative Christian advocacy group, Focus on Family, reportedly is phoning Alaskans asking them to call six state senators directing them to support the constitutional amendment.

Any resolution to amend the Alaska Constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and by voters.

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