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December 30, 2011

Michigan law bans local domestic partner benefits

Lansing, Mich.--Gov. Rick Snyder gave public employees in Michigan a stockingful of coal for Christmas, signing a ban on domestic partner benefits on December 22.

The measure bars cities, schools and other local entities from giving the same health benefits to their workers’ partners that they give to married spouses, as some have begun to do. The banned benefits are similar to those offered by several Ohio universities and the cities of Cleveland, Columbus and Cleveland Heights, along with a number of private companies.

Snyder and some of the measure’s supporters in the legislature said that it does not apply to employees of public universities, which have wide-ranging autonomous powers under the Michigan constitution, or to state employees, who signed a contract earlier this year granting them domestic partner benefits.

However, other supporters in the Michigan House of Representatives said that the legislation does cover the public universities, which are the largest providers of domestic partner benefits in public employment in the state.

Only Lake Superior State University fails to offer some form of domestic partner benefits, and Snyder himself pointed to the constitution as preventing the legislature from regulating the provision of benefits to public university employees.

The University of Michigan provides benefits to 570 adults and 48 minors under their domestic partner policy, while the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, which contain the school’s main campus, only provide domestic partner benefits to 21 adults, nine partners of county employees and 12 of city workers.

“These benefits remain important to reviving Michigan’s economy and in helping our state to compete for the best talent to educate our students,” Leigh Greden, executive director of government and community relations for Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, told the Ann Arbor News. “That’s why Michigan’s universities worked with business groups to oppose this legislation.”

His counterpart at nearby U of M, Cynthia Wilbanks, expressed concern at the varying opinions as to the law’s reach.

“There seems to be some difference of opinion about whether the approved legislation applies directly to state universities. That remains a very serious concern,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has promised to file suit against the legislation.

“We’re so very disappointed in the governor,” executive director Kary L. Moss said. “This was the moment for him to show real leadership, to rise above what I believe is petty politics, to tell the rest of the country that Michigan is not living in the dark ages and to create an open, inclusive Michigan.”

Snyder had asked the legislature to take the bill back and amend it so that it specifically excluded public universities; House analysts said it would not exclude state universities, while Senate analysts said it would.

In his signing statement, Snyder asserted it would not apply to public universities under the state constitution, or to employees of the state civil service, whose employment terms are dictated by the Michigan Civil Service Commission under the constitution.

“The decision to take health care benefits away from families just in time for the holidays is mean-spirited and cruel,” Moss said. “We are prepared to challenge this law on behalf of Michigan families in the coming weeks.”

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