(AP) The Senate on Saturday voted to allow same-sex partners of state workers to buy into the state's health insurance program, even as opponents charged it was a stealth attempt to clear a path for legalized gay marriage.
Supporters said they only want to provide equal treatment to all people who work for the state, regardless of sexual orientation.
"Including this in the bill puts us squarely in the mainstream of Minnesota business," said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. "Literally dozens of our major companies and employers offer domestic partnership health benefits to their employees. It really is a case of fairness, and of recruiting and retaining the best workforce possible."
Originally, the measure was to provide the same access to health benefits as that of any state employee's spouse. But, pointing out that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration had objected to the potential cost, senators decided to instead allow the partners of state employees to buy into the state's insurance program.
"The complaint I've heard from the administration is they didn't like the cost," said Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley. "I've taken care of that."
C. Scott Cooper, lobbyist for the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, said it would still be cheaper for partners of state employees to buy into the state program as opposed to buying health insurance on the open market.
OutFront would have preferred state-subsidized coverage, Cooper said, but the Senate's action will force Pawlenty to accept or reject domestic partner benefits on the merits, not because of cost.
But Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor has always made it clear he's opposed to the state offering domestic partnership benefits. He said Pawlenty is willing to veto the entire state government finance bill - the vehicle for the benefits - over the issue if necessary.
"One of the things that concerns us is that the governor has been willing to set aside controversial issues and focus on bread and butter items, and we see here that Senate Democrats are unwilling to do that in the spirit of cooperation," McClung said.
Senate Republicans tried but failed to strip the domestic partner benefits from the larger bill, arguing that even inserting the term "domestic partnership" into state law could give a judge the basis to recognize a right to gay marriage in state law.
"I don't believe this is about insurance, I believe this is about creating a building block or laying a cornerstone for same-sex marriage," said Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield.
In 2000, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura said he wanted to include domestic partner benefits in the next contract for state employees. State lawmakers rejected his request, but during contract negotiations in 2001 the state decided to provide the benefit anyway, in part to help settle a state employee strike.
That move extended domestic partner benefits to about 85 state employees. But state employee contracts must be ratified by the Legislature, and in 2003 the Republican majority in the House of Representatives refused to do so, revoking the benefits after just six months.
Betzold said the state Department of Employee Relations now estimates the partners of about 400 state workers would be eligible for the benefit.
The Senate's state agency finance bill also would allow Minnesota cities and counties to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees. Both of the domestic partnership provisions are also working their way through the House of Representatives, where the state agency finance bill could be voted on as early as next week.