Ambiguously worded domestic partner benefits ban 'remains a serious concern' for some officials
Politicians and affected parties say its unclear whether an amended domestic partner benefits ban in Michigan will extend to public universities.
Booth file photo
House Bill 4770 was passed by the state Senate on Wednesday, where it was also amended to omit language that would have it apply to employees of public universities. The Michigan House passed the amended bill Thursday, but several Republican representatives said the bill would continue to apply to universities.
The bill seeks to forbid public employers in Michigan from offering health care benefits to domestic partners and their partners' children. It has been heavily criticized by education advocates, and the Senate reworded the bill in an attempt to assuage opponents.
Yet Republican lawmakers in the House contend that the amended law defines public employees through Michigan's Public Employees Relations Act, which includes employees of universities. The amended bill says it applies to employees at state and local governments and boards, public schools and “any other branch of the public service.”
Higher education proponents contend public universities have power through the Michigan Constitution to determine their own policies through separate governing bodies, such as boards of regents or trustees.
"There's some confusion out there about whether universities are going to be included or not," State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said yesterday. "The Senate thinks no. The House thinks yes."
Irwin voted against the bill.
The bill's sponsor State Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, did not respond to a request for comment.
Sara Wurfel, Gov. Rick Snyder's press secretary, has said the administration believes the bill does not apply to universities.
Wurfel told the Grand Rapids Press that Snyder would sign the bill only if he is certain it excludes public universities.
Cynthia Wilbanks, U-M's vice president for government relations, said the university remains unclear about the impact of the amended legislation.
"It is noteworthy that the amended version of the legislation removes any reference to state universities as being within the scope of the legislation," she said in an e-mail. "Nonetheless, there seems to be some difference of opinion about whether the approved legislation applies directly to state universities.
"That remains a serious concern," she continued.
Scott Dennis, a University of Michigan librarian, said he was at first "greatly relived" by the amended version, but has grown more concerned as the House continues to assert that university employees will be affected.
"I'm a little bit less relieved now," he said. "It could be argued in court that universities are included, although they're not explicitly included."
Dennis, who has worked at U-M for 14 years, extends his university benefits to his live-in partner.
"It's still better that it not definitely include universities," Dennis said. "But I'm afraid that it could still end up in the courts and it could still be uncertain how it will resolve."
Eastern Michigan University Director of Government Relations Leigh Greden, a former Ann Arbor City Council member, said EMU is "pleased that the Senate and the governor clearly intended to exclude universities from this legislation," but added that he remains apprehensive about the issue.
"I’m concerned that the issue may resurface in the future," he said. "Individuals and organizations who oppose this legislation should continue watching this issue."
On his Facebook page, Irwin warned that the ambiguously worded bill could lead to a "long court battle."
"The bad news is that this court battle is likely to cost us all more than providing the benefits," he said.
This story is being updated.