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Faculty Senate refers domestic partners benefits back to committee

STANFORD -- The Stanford University Faculty Senate on Thursday, May 16, narrowly sent back to committee a resolution supporting giving the same benefits to long-term partners of gay and lesbian faculty and staff members as to employee spouses.

After almost two hours of discussion, the Senate first voted against a motion by Denis Phillips, education, to put the Senate on record in favor of extending the benefits but leaving open when and how.

A majority then voted for a motion by Sanford Dornbusch, sociology, that asked President Donald Kennedy to direct the University Committee on Faculty and Staff Benefits to address all the issues raised in the Senate discussion and bring back a report, which will most likely not be ready until next academic year.

The Senate's academic secretary does not report Senate vote tallies, but both show-of-hands votes appeared to produce narrow margins. During the discussion, some of those who voted against the resolution and for sending it to the committee indicated may support the proposal when they have more information on the bill's legal, economic or political ramifications.

The Senate has no decision-making authority over faculty- staff benefits. However, proponents of the bill said a statement of principle would encourage the administration to make changes.

At the request of the Senate on April 18, Kennedy had already referred the issue to the benefits committee, which makes recommendations to the administration. The committee's report could not be completed in time for the May 16 Senate discussion, but Graduate School of Business Prof. Alain Enthoven, the committee's chair, made a personal report recommending against changing most of the benefits policies, especially the medical insurance plan.

Cost issues

Enthoven estimated that it would cost the University approximately $600,000 per year initially and eventually $1.2 million to $2.4 million to include same-sex partners in the medical insurance plan. "Any proposal to open coverage to other persons raises serious questions of adverse risk selection -- that is, previously uninsured people who are diagnosed with costly medical conditions seeking to obtain coverage through affiliation with a Stanford employee, and driving up the costs and premiums of our insurance," he said. "This is not a concern specific to same-gender domestic partners."

At a time when benefit costs are skyrocketing, he said, the University should be cautious about adding new benefit costs. The benefits committee, he noted, has just recommended the University restructure Stanford's retiree health benefits along the same lines recommended earlier for employees, shifting some costs from employer to employees.

Robert M. Anderson, an economics professor from the University of California-Berkeley, who was permitted to speak at the Senate, disputed Enthoven's cost estimates and estimated them to be "in the neighborhood of $300,000." He recommended conducting an employee survey, similar to one he helped the city of San Francisco to conduct, to get an accurate cost estimate.

Proponents of the resolution defended it as necessary to comply with the University's policy stating that it does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age or sex.

Because state laws do not permit same-sex marriages, gays and lesbians cannot marry their long-term partners, proponents said, and therefore, they are not able to take advantage of benefits the University provides to heterosexual employees who do marry.

The bill also would make it possible for Stanford employees to obtain health and education benefits for the children of a same-sex partner who, unlike adopted stepchildren in an employee's second marriage, are ineligible for coverage under current University policy.

"It is recognized that approximately 30 percent of an employee's compensation is comprised by benefits. The lack of availability of these benefits imposes a unique financial hardship" on gays and lesbians in committed relationships, said Dr. Katherine O'Hanlan, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics, who authored the bill.

However, Stephen Krasner, political science, and Frances Conley, surgery, said they were not convinced this was a fair employment issue. Benefits are designed to attract employees and are not necessarily a statement of principle, Krasner said. Conley noted that she doesn't get the substantial education benefit that Stanford provides for children of employees because she has chosen to have no children.

"This group is asking us to make a political statement about one particular life style," Conley said.

"To some extent, it is a political statement," said Deborah Rhode, law, the bill's sponsor. Discrimination against homosexuals is widespread in our society, she said, and "not to extend benefits is also a political statement."

Legal questions raised

Other senators argued that they needed more information on such issues as how Stanford would ensure it was covering only partners in a long-term committed relationship similar to marriage.

O'Hanlan provided the senators with a copy of a "declaration of domestic partnership" used by City of San Francisco employees to apply for benefits there. Under penalty of perjury, the employee and his or her partner must declare that "neither of us has had a different domestic partner in the last six months."

"A key word is commitment, which lacks a legal or tangible definition," said Craig Heller, biological sciences. He said he feared it might be possible under the proposal for Stanford to have to pay tuition benefits to the child of an employee's domestic partner after the employee had ended his or her own financial commitment to the child.

Rhode and O'Hanlan said many issues -- such as cost, how to structure an equitable program and how to ensure that only people in committed domestic partnerships qualify -- could be addressed in a specific implementation plan.

Dornbusch, however, said his vote would be different depending on the details. He said he was "absolutely in favor" of extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners but "absolutely opposed to that proposal if it has the slightest risk of being expanded to domestic partnerships of two-sex couples. I really feel so differently about those people who don't have the legal option of getting married and those who have that option."



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