Commentary
11:28 am
Fri January 6, 2012

Ban on domestic partner benefits for some, may cost more than it saves

A while ago, I heard a lecturer explain how the 1960s were a time in which there was a great cultural clash in our country. Well, you didn’t have to live through the period to know that.

Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A’Changin,“ spells it out. However, I would argue that the present-day culture wars are far deeper than the days when dad yelled at junior to get a haircut, and parents worried over whether their kids were trying marijuana.

Michigan is gearing up for a war that pretends to be about money, but really is about something else. I’m speaking of the battle over domestic partnership benefits. Last month the Michigan Legislature passed a new law that forbids virtually all governments, state and local, from providing such benefits to their employees.

Mostly, we are talking about health care. When men or women who are married get jobs with benefits, these have always been routinely extended to their spouse and minor children.

Over the past few years, more and more employers have been requiring their workers to pay a small fraction of the cost for ensuring their dependents, but it was always understood they were eligible.

However, also over the past few years, employers have increasingly recognized that we are a very diverse society, and that many people are in meaningful, committed relationships that don’t involve conventional marriage. Many of these are between same-sex partners, who are still not allowed to marry in most states.

So, employers in both the private and public sectors have begun allowing employees to extend health benefits to such significant others. That doesn’t mean some casual partner; usually you have to show proof you’ve lived together for more than a year.

There is considerable evidence that this has actually helped  employers attract top-notch people. But it has incensed religious and social conservatives, who find it intolerable that other people live lifestyles they don’t approve. The conservatives in the legislature led the drive to outlaw these benefits.

This was dressed up as a cost-saving measure, but it is perfectly clear that this was just hypocritical window-dressing. According to one estimate, the combined cost of all these benefits may be less than a million dollars a year. Passing this law also violates a Republican party principle that state governments ought not to tell local governments what to do.

Well, my prediction is that this will end up costing the state more in legal fees than it will save by denying a few people health benefits. The national and state branches of the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit yesterday seeking to strike down the new law.

In its press release, the American Civil Liberties Union also included the stories of real people, some with conditions like cancer and glaucoma, whose lives have been disrupted because of this intolerant new law. Some couples are considering leaving the state.

Incidentally, most large and successful private sector companies do provide these benefits nowadays, which makes it all the more baffling that our high-tech governor signed this law.

When he was running for office, Rick Snyder said that he wanted to be governor to stop the state’s ongoing race to the bottom. Sadly, it looks like he’s helped the intolerant take a wrong turn.