It's Crunch Time in Chattanooga for Same Sex Benefits

I guess it was inevitable sooner or later, but now we’re here: last Tuesday, Chattanooga’s City Council approved an ordinance to extend employment benefits for the city to domestic partners and not just those joined by civil marriage.  As is the case with many unicameral legislatures, it takes two readings to make this official, and so this Tuesday night the City Council will make its vote final.  The two usual sides to the issue are lining up in the two usual ways.

Readers of this blog know that, because I advocate the abolition of civil marriage, my take on this is going to be a little different.  The city’s proposed ordinance with summary is here, so let’s take a look at it.

Let’s start at the end of the summary:

Based on initial research, companies and other municipalities that have adopted a similar benefits program have experienced a financial impact of not more than one (1%) percent of their total budget.

At this point, with the vagaries of Obamacare kicking in, an estimate of the impact of health care costs on anyone’s budget is just that: a guess.  As with financial advisors, past performance many not be indicative of future results.  Given that many people outside the public sector struggle with no or expensive health care coverage, from these standpoints expanding the cost structure of city employees is ill-timed, to say the least.

One interesting facet is that many corporations offer benefits for domestic partners.  “Offer” and “pay for” however are not synonymous in the private sector, especially with dependent health care coverage.  When a private company offers “domestic partner benefits,” in reality it may mean only “access to insurance for domestic partners.”  In the public sector, the dynamic is different.  Traditionally government entities have compensated for below-private sector salaries by more generous benefits.  In many “blue” states both salary and benefits are often ahead of those in the private sector, and this has led to the solvency issues which have gotten some attention.  Tennessee is a low-tax state, not particularly generous in this regard, but given the shaky solvency of the public sector in general, expanding the cost base probably isn’t a good idea at this juncture.

Health insurance, however, brings up another issue: why, with the promises of universal coverage of Obamacare, is this even being brought up?  In places where health care coverage is now universal, neither public or private entities even worry about such things.  Put another way, if the LGBT community had spent the effort pushing single-payer health care in this country that they’ve put into same-sex civil marriage, they’d have significantly “leveled the playing field” between married and unmarried couples.  But I guess, with the special interest dynamic in place in American politics, that’s too much to ask.

Before I “cut to the chase” let me look at another issue: who is eligible for domestic partnership status.  The summary tells us the following:

The city employee and the domestic partner have chosen to share one another’s lives in an intimate and committed relationship of mutual caring;

What’s this about?  How will we know this is so?  Sex cam?  I’ve delved into the topic of “committed relationships” before, but this, in the context of our society, means that the relationship is sexualised.  How do we know that?  This:

The city employee and domestic partner cannot be lineal ancestors or descendants or related to a degree of kinship that would prevent marriage under the laws of the State of Tennessee

The core reason closely related people cannot get married (an interesting topic in view of our history here in Tennessee) is because of genetic problems that result from those kinds of union.  (I even got a lecture on our mountain ways when I was in the old Soviet Union!)  But why should this restriction stand?  What about people–related or otherwise–who don’t sexualise their relationship?  (Don’t tell me, those types of relationships don’t exist, right?)  This restriction says more about the motives of the proponents than the equity of their proposal.

And that leads me to the civil marriage business.  Opponents say that this undermines marriage.  Without going into all the serious problems with civil marriage in general, let me reiterate that, when pursing “marriage equality” same-sex civil marriage wasn’t the only way to get to the goal.  Getting rid of civil marriage altogether would make more sense, but that’s not the way the LGBT community–or at least its leadership–chose to do it.

So then you ask: what would a “benefits” criteria look like without civil marriage?  The ordinance pretty much lays it out, although as I said earlier we could dispense with the implicit sexualisation of the relationship.  It may be clumsy and complicated looking, but at least it would need a year before the City would extend benefits, which would slow down opportunistic or ephemeral marriages.

My final take is that this thing needs some work.  Getting that work done in the context of the charged debate is probably not in the cards; as we know, there’s already a move to put its repeal as a ballot initiative, should it pass.  In saying that, however, I should put one note of caution to everyone.

The whole idea of extending benefits to unmarried couples (as opposed to recognizing same-sex civil marriages from other states) is probably a device to get the thing passed.  In doing so, its proponents not only undermine “traditional” civil marriage, but they undermine the legal device, including same-sex civil marriage which they have advocated for so long.  They may (or may not) achieve a temporary victory, but in the long run those of us who have advocated for civil marriage’s abolition, either de jure or de facto, may be the only winners here.

Now if we can keep from going broke in the process…but I’m not counting on that either.

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