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Budget committee shelves statewide domestic partner registry

Domestic partners of public employees would no longer be able to receive benefits under a budget motion.

Thousands of domestic partners of local government employees and state workers will be booted from health care and other benefits under the state budget signed last week.

State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said the provisions eliminating laws enacted to provide gay public employees with a measure of marriage equality are consistent with measures enacted since Republicans took control of state government.

“If you look at it both as an attack on the LGBT community and an attack on state employees, neither of those things are surprising given the record of this administration and this Legislature,” he said.

The domestic partnership program, signed into law by former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has provided health insurance and survivor benefits for domestic partners of local government and state employees since 2010. But Walker, a Republican, who nixed the program in his executive budget last spring, maintained that with the 2014 legalization of gay marriage in the state, domestic partnership provisions are redundant. Walker's budget also removed domestic partners as a default beneficiary for supplemental retirement savings if an individual's partner dies.

Walker's budget estimated the moves would generate $6.8 million in savings. 

The Legislature's budget-writing committee adopted the provisions and went further, banning local governments from providing domestic partnership benefits and prohibiting additional registrants on the state domestic partnership registry. 

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, between 2010 and 2017, state employees registered 4,394 domestic partnerships. More than three-quarters of those partnerships are made up of opposite-sex couples.

Spreitzer said the moves have little to do with cost reduction.

“The supposed cost savings are really negligible in the scope of a state budget,” he said. “I think to say that it’s being done for that reason is disingenuous.”

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson didn’t return messages seeking comment. But he had earlier told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the elimination of domestic partnership benefits was aimed at steering employees who want them toward marriage.

The state's same-sex domestic partnership registry provides rights to domestic partners regarding inheritance, hospital visitation and other matters. Spreitzer, who is gay, said phasing out the registry puts gay domestic partners on shaky legal ground. 

“I think it is certainly a slap in the face to the LGBT community to take away this guarantee of certain legal benefits at a time when Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Walker have not been willing to guarantee marriage equality in state law other than as required by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to legalize same-sex marriages. Spreitzer said that the court, which under Republican President Donald Trump is likely to tilt farther to the right, could undo that ruling in the future.

“To say that we no longer need a domestic partner registry for same-sex couples because we have marriage equality, I don’t buy that argument if you’re not willing to actually put marriage equality into state law and ensure that it’s still going to be there regardless of what votes may change on the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

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Spreitzer said the Republican ban on local governments providing domestic partnership benefits is one more example of Republican encroachment on local control. 

A former member of the Beloit City Council, Spreitzer helped pass an ordinance to extend domestic partner health care and other benefits to city employees.

“That was a decision we made because we wanted to recruit and retain the best employees,” he said.

He said the budget measures will make it harder for the state to recruit and retain talent. 

“We know as a state that we’re losing young people,” he said. “We’re having trouble attracting young people. And this is a benefit that especially young employees are looking for, whether they are gay or straight.”

The measures also will impact the University of Wisconsin, which, after years of Republican budget cuts and policies that some claim are anti-academic, is already having problems recruiting and retaining talented faculty.

John Lucas, vice chancellor for university relations, said that as of June, 197 UW-Madison employees were receiving domestic partnership health benefits. 

"This has been a benefit offered by many of our peers in higher education and business," he said. "The inability to offer it could place the university at a competitive disadvantage when recruiting."

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.