Unions take sides on same-sex benefits 

Same-sex partner benefits

While the City of Missoula contemplates extending health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of city employees, two city unions have already taken sides.

The Missoula Police Association (MPA) has come out against extending the benefits, while a smaller union representing some Parks and Recreation employees has lent the idea its support.

Meanwhile, the city Employee Benefits Committee is reviewing different proposals and will report back to city council members in May.

The committee is focusing on two different approaches. One is to create a new category in the city’s insurance plan that would include a new definition of domestic partnership. The other would be to extend benefits to employees’ tax dependents, an IRS-mandated category that could include domestic partners but also other family members.

In a letter to the Employee Benefits Committee, MPA President Tim Burt and Vice President Jason Huntsinger said the union opposes extending the benefits.

“The members of the MPA wholeheartedly agree that we all should embrace diversity,” they wrote. “However, we also believe that the city would be setting an unfair precedent by considering this proposal as well as opening the door to uncontrollable fraud.”

Ward 6 Councilman Ed Childers agrees that the proposal seems incompatible with Montana’s law, which does not recognize same-sex domestic partnerships.

“Definitely it is an attempt to circumvent state law,” he says. Childers chairs the council’s Administration and Finance Committee.

Ward Two Councilman Jim McGrath acknowledges the challenges posed by Montana’s state law, but he thinks the police union’s opposition is premature, given that there is not a specific proposal yet.

“Some people have raised unnecessary and extreme fears about how suddenly there would be tons of people on the plan and it would be open to just about anybody you could imagine,” McGrath says. “And that’s simply not the case.” Jeff Howe, president of the Montana Public Employees Association chapter representing city parks employees, says that his union’s support of extending the benefits is largely symbolic.

“We didn’t want to appear to be jumping on a bandwagon or anything, but the events compelled us to talk to the membership and we wanted to come out in favor of same-sex benefits,” Howe says, referring to the February arson attack on the home of a Missoula couple that has sued the Montana University System for similar benefits.

That lawsuit is still in the courts. This week the University System’s lawyer argued that because state law bans gay marriage, it is more of a matter for the Legislature to decide than for the courts.

“Personally, what I’d like to do is wait and see what happens with the University lawsuit,” says Childers.

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