DP benefits uncertain in Wisconsin budget vote
by Mary Ann Swissler
An 8-8 vote on whether to pay for domestic partnership benefits for state employees set the stage in the Wisconsin legislature for a showdown divided strictly along party lines, with Democratic Governor Jim Doyle looking like the sole chance for the measure to survive the 2007-2008 budget negotiations.
Doyle is the only governor in the U.S. with line-item veto powers in the budget.
He placed the money for the benefits, roughly $500,000 according to early estimates, in the state budget. But the tie vote by the Joint Finance Committee earlier this month â€“ eight Democrats voting yes for the benefit measure and eight Republicans voting no â€“ essentially eliminates it before the budget negotiations begin on the floor.
A "yes" vote in both houses of the legislature to put the money back is unlikely â€“ if Republicans continue the trend â€“ since only the state Senate has a Democratic majority. The party makeup of the state Assembly is 52 Republicans and 47 Democrats, and the state Senate has 18 Democrats and 15 Republicans.
Doyle's office did not return calls for this article about whether he would step in.
A legislative aide to openly gay state Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat representing an area next to Madison, said backers were "a bit shocked" by the vote, but stressed that it's still early in the budgetary negotiations. The aide, who said he would speak only if not quoted by name because he is not authorized to talk to the media, added, "A lot of things are in play."
In response to the vote, Fair Wisconsin, a statewide group dedicated to the civil rights of LGBT people, started a petition campaign to reinstate the money, according to a June 11 statement.
FAIR Wisconsin's Web site states: "Offering domestic partner benefits is a mainstream business practice, and the cost is minimal. Employers from Fortune 500 companies to other state governments consistently report a less than one percent increase in health care costs." The University of Wisconsin is the only school in the Big 10 without domestic partnership benefits, and that has driven several professors out of the state, according to news reports.
Last November 7, Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly approved an anti-gay ballot initiative, the Defense of Marriage Constitutional Amendment, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. At the time, framers of that measure repeatedly assured the LGBT community and its allies that its passage would not ban domestic partnership benefits.
Ironically, in 1982, amid GOP domination nationwide and a Republican governor, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to pass a non-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation.