ST. PAUL (AP) -- Minnesota legislators took steps Monday toward revoking insurance coverage for partners of gay and lesbian state workers, which some say would be a first-of-its-kind reversal of benefits by a public employer.
House and Senate committees approved bills to nullify the same-sex domestic-partner benefits extended in union contracts negotiated in 2001. Union leaders are supporting the concession, grudgingly, to prevent pay cuts for 44,500 employees that would occur if the Legislature doesn't ratify the contracts.
"We're simply bowing to the political realities," said Russell Stanton, a lobbyist for a union representing state college professors.
Ten states and more than 150 local governments offer such benefits, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. Minnesota's move would be "groundbreaking, in a reprehensible way," said the campaign's David Smith.
"I'm not aware of any government entity taking away domestic-partner benefits from the work force," he said.
Over the objections of Republican legislators two years ago, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura included the health coverage and bereavement leave in most state union contracts for this year and last.
The pacts have been in force pending the required legislative consent, which hasn't occurred. If they are rejected or no action is taken before May 19, wages and benefits for all workers would revert to previous levels. Negotiations on new two-year contracts are about to begin.
The bills would end the domestic-partner insurance coverage effective June 30 and preserve everything else until new deals are reached. Normally, contracts are voted on in full.
"I understand the passion. I understand the emotion to that issue," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, who opposes the offering on moral grounds. "We will not accept that part of the contract. But we need to ratify the rest of it."
To underscore the urgency, Sviggum and the Democratic Senate leader, John Hottinger of St. Peter, agreed to put their own heft behind the bill as the chief sponsors. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants the benefits removed.
One difference must be worked out. Hottinger's bill continues sick and bereavement leave, while Sviggum's ends that too.
Department of Administration employee Mark Iezek is among the 85 state workers to access the benefit. Iezek said while he understands why the union is giving in, he is angry that he will lose coverage for his partner of 13 years.
"By taking it away, the state will be saying it values some employees more than others," Iezek said.
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