Originally created 11/28/02

Group goes school by school to push same-sex benefits



ATHENS, Ga. - The Domestic Partnership Coalition of the University System of Georgia will focus its energies on individual campuses as it anticipates a long battle to persuade the University System of Georgia Board of Regents to formally consider extending benefits to same-sex partners.

The University of Georgia's University Council, a group of faculty, administrators and students who help shape university policy, passed a resolution in September asking the Board of Regents to consider the issue of same-sex benefits.

The issue was not on the regents' agenda during last week's monthly meeting, but regents spokeswoman Arlethia Perry-Johnson said "now that one institution has asked to discuss it, it will be integrated into the long-term (regents' employee benefit committee) conversations that are taking place."

Ms. Perry-Johnson would not say how likely it is that the regents will ever vote on the issue, nor would she say whether the regents would be dissuaded from considering the issue because some members of the public consider it to be controversial.

She also explained that single issues within employee benefits do not routinely surface on the regents' monthly agendas. Rather, she said, the regents usually consider all employee benefits issues together each September before the open-enrollment period for health insurance that extends from mid-October to mid-November.

And, Ms. Perry-Johnson suggested that the dreary economic situation facing the state, the University System's 34 institutions have cut their budgets by 5 percent this fiscal year, may make the addition of domestic partner benefits unlikely.

"Any employee benefit conversation has to be conducted in the context of today's budget context," she said. "... They're going to look at that benefit among other competing benefits, and its cost to the Board of Regents."

Adrian Childs, a UGA music professor and a member of the Domestic Partnership Coalition, said Monday that the statewide group will work to get resolutions passed on more campuses in Georgia in order to increase pressure on the regents.

"The more schools that indicate that this is an important issue for them, then the more difficult it would be for the Board of Regents not to address it," he said. "The University System is so large, I don't think it would be reasonable for the Board of Regents to address a request from only one school."

Mr. Childs added that he was not surprised that the regents are not immediately addressing the issue.

"Really, the only consensus among our group is for it to take a while," he said. "... The University System of Colorado recently adopted domestic partner benefits, and we know from talking to them that it took 12 years. The University of Indiana just adopted them, and I believe they've been working on it for about nine years."

While universities are somewhat limited by the Board of Regents' policies, they have some flexibility to offer additional benefits as long as they are not paid for by state-allocated funds.

Georgia State University already extends "soft benefits" to same-sex partners, and Georgia Tech will do the same beginning Jan. 1.

"Soft benefits" include benefits not funded by the University System, such as dental and accidental death insurance, and access to university recreation centers, according to Georgia Tech spokeswoman Amelia Gambino.

"(Soft benefits) are something that we have certainly brought to Dr. Adams' (UGA President Michael Adams) attention," Mr. Childs said.

Matt Winston, a special assistant to Dr. Adams, said the university is seeking legal and policy directions from the Board of Regents to see what it can do in that area, independently of the regents.

"Some of the questions that come up are that these are state resources and the legal definition of partners able to receive benefits is that they are in a recognized marriage, and the state does not recognize same-sex marriages," he said. "There are also some legal precedents that say that doesn't matter."

Mr. Winston said he does not know when or if the university will decide to extend some benefits to same-sex partners, and he said it is "moving cautiously to make sure we do it right."

He said the university's pace in addressing the issue has angered some people, while others have expressed anger that it would be considered at all.

The controversy surrounding the issue, however, will not make the university less likely to extend soft benefits, he said.

"We make a lot of unpopular decisions around here," Mr. Winston said.

"Some of the questions that come up are that these are state resources and the legal definition of partners able to receive benefits is that they are in a recognized marriage, and the state does not recognize same-sex marriages." - Matt Winston, special assistant to University of Georgia President Michael Adams