Politics & Government

Ban on domestic partner benefits fails

FRANKFORT - A controversial measure that would have banned universities and government entities from offering domestic-partner health benefits narrowly failed in the House Health and Welfare Committee yesterday.

Had the outcome been different, University of Louisville professor Gina Bertocci and her partner, Dr. Karen Frost, were prepared to leave the state, Bertocci said after the committee deadlocked 8-8, thus defeating the bill.

"It would have been an endorsement of discrimination," said Bertocci, who holds the endowed chair of biomechanics.

Going with Frost and Bertocci, who has been at U of L for three years, would have been Bertocci's $4.5 million grant to study wheelchair transportation safety.

"There's no way I would have done my research here," Bertocci said.

Senate Bill 152 needed nine votes to pass the committee, but received only eight. Eight other lawmakers voted against the measure and one, Democratic Rep. Ancel Smith of Leburn, was absent.

"I'm optimistic about the fact that fairness prevailed," said Christina Gilgor, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance. "It wasn't the overwhelming victory that we would have liked, but it's a victory."

Backers of the measure said they still hold hope that it can somehow be revived before legislators end their 30-day session on March 27. If not, they promised to support the bill next year.

"It will be back in 2008," said Democratic Rep. Bob Damron of Nicholasville, who voted in favor of the bill.

Had House Speaker Jody Richards and other Democratic leaders sent the bill to the House Banking and Insurance Committee, where Damron said it belongs, it would have been approved by the committee and eventually passed by the full House, Damron said.

Republican Sen. Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs filed the measure, which easily passed the Republican-controlled Senate last month, after U of L instituted a new policy last year that allows domestic partners of employees to purchase health insurance. The university does not subsidize the coverage, available to unmarried partners of the same or opposite sex.

Bertocci is one of eight university employees who take advantage of the policy, which university President James Ramsey says is necessary to attract the best possible candidates as the school seeks to gain national prominence.

The University of Kentucky is considering a similar proposal, although it would spend about $633,000 a year subsidizing such coverage. About 40 percent of that cost would come from the state's General Fund.

Although aimed at U of L and UK, the bill would have banned state and local governments, public and private colleges, and some quasi-government institutions from offering health insurance to anyone other than employees and their spouses and children.

McGaha and The Family Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, contend that domestic-partner benefit plans violate the Kentucky Constitution, which voters amended in 2004 to define a marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The marriage amendment, passed overwhelmingly, also says "a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized."

"This is just a back door to the gay marriage thing," said David Bingham of Paintsville, who attended the meeting.

Yesterday's hearing was the third in less than a week on the issue. The only testimony taken before yesterday's vote was from Gilgor.

Gilgor urged the committee to kill the bill because it attempts to restrict access to healthcare and is part of an "extremist agenda" that misuses the Bible to justify discrimination.

"In a few years, people will look back and wonder what the fuss was all about," Gilgor said.

Republican Rep. David Floyd of Bardstown noted that Gilgor was the only person who testified before the committee that mentioned the Bible and said it was a mischaracterization to say the bill would block access to healthcare, since those without health insurance routinely receive healthcare.

"Nobody wants to deny anyone healthcare," Floyd said.

Christina Gilgor