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November 4, 2011

Michigan moves to cancel DP benefits, local rights laws

Lansing, Mich.--The Michigan legislature took a step towards barring municipalities from granting domestic partner benefits to public employees on October 19, two weeks after Rep. Tom McMillin introduced legislation to strike local gay-inclusive rights ordinances.

The Michigan Senate Committee on Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing approved two bills that would eliminate benefits for unmarried partners of public employees. The bills would prevent government bodies from offering the benefits, and block unions from including them in collective bargaining agreements.

The bills passed along party lines.

A month earlier, the bills passed the Michigan House of Representatives on a 64-44 vote. They were introduced after the legislature was unable to override the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s collective bargaining agreement allowing some state workers to share benefits with an “eligible adult.”

McMillin’s bill, which is identical to one passed last spring in Tennessee, would prohibit municipalities from passing rights protections beyond what is offered at the state level. It would void LGBT anti-discrimination protections in 14 Michigan cities.

McMillin’s statements in favor of it are also identical to ones used by bill sponsors in Tennessee: to create uniform laws across the state.

He also cried discrimination against the Boy Scouts and Christian business owners who would deny service to LGBT people because they found their lives or events sinful.

“Discrimination is happening right now,” countered Jon Hoadley, executive director of Unity Michigan, to the Michigan Messenger. “If local leaders don’t want to wait for Lansing to do the right thing by protecting all people--including our gay and transgender neighbors--from discrimination while making Michigan a better place for business, then cities should have the ability to step up and lead.”

Among the local laws in danger is the one in East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. Passed in 1972, it is the first city ordinance in the nation to bar discrimination by sexual orientation.

“House Bill 5039 is an unnecessary and unjustifiable intrusion into an important issue of local concern for Michigan cities,” said East Lansing councilor Nathan Triplett. “The state legislature has no business telling communities that we cannot recognize the equal dignity of each and every one of our residents by enacting inclusive anti-discrimination ordinances. The practical effect of this legislation in the city of East Lansing will be to legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and student status. That is completely unacceptable and does not represent the values of our community.”

Emily Dievendorf, policy director of Equality Michigan, was understandably critical of the legislation.

“Republican lawmakers continue to attack hardworking LGBT people rather than focusing on real issues,” she told Detroit’s Between the Lines LGBT newspaper. “They are ignoring best practices in business and promoting a hostile environment for gay and lesbian couples. We hope that voters question where lawmakers’ real priorities are.”

Of the benefit ban, she said, “Tens of thousands of public and private employees in our state have access to health care benefits for domestic partners. This legislation, if passed, would have a devastating impact. Michigan Republicans are ready to close the door for gay and lesbian couples who want to live here--even if it means dictating human resources policy for local governments.”

Jay Kaplan, ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project staff attorney, testified on the benefits ban before the committee.

“Given the lack of economic soundness behind these proposals, one is left to believe that the true motivation behind these bills is a cynical, mean-spirited attempt to attack and harm people that certain members of this legislature do not like,” he said. “House Bills 4770 and 4771 are wrong. They are unfair. They are unconstitutional and they will be challenged in court should they become law.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s legal counsel, Michael Gadola, sent a May 18 letter to senate and house leaders indicating that the benefit bills were unconstitutional and unenforceable because of the way they infringe on the authority of public universities. Kaplan mirrored that in his testimony.

“Michigan courts have long recognized that the legislature may not interfere with a university board institutional management and control,” he noted. “The State of Michigan, including its legislative body, has always been strongly committed to the concept of home rule. This legislation blatantly goes against this history.”

Sponsors of the legislation claimed that the benefits would cost over $8 million, but a more recent Civil Service Commission analysis showed that only 100 employees opted in, costing only $600,000, less than one-tenth sponsors’ estimates.

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