Cover Story: Domestic partner benefits

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Mecklenburg county commissioners set to vote Tuesday night on the volatile topic of extending health benefits to same sex couples.

Some consider this an issue of fairness.

But others believe the county could wind up getting sued.

For almost a year, Mecklenburg county has been studying the option of giving health benefits to county employee's gay partners.

They've reviewed what other local governments have done -- and now members say they're prepared to vote.

County commission chair says she has the six Democratic votes for it to pass and the three Republicans say they will oppose it.

To back the majority's position is a ruling from an authority on state law, which found it is legal to offer domestic partner benefits under North Carolina law, but others disagree.

Offering health benefits to same-sex couples is more widely practiced in the private sector.

A number of Fortune 500 companies based in North Carolina currently offer benefits.  Bank of America, Lowe's, Duke Energy to name a few.

But state and local governments supported by taxpayers have not embraced the practice.

Even though an expert in state law at the University of North Carolina School of Government extended an opinion recently that says she reads nothing in the state statues that prohibits local government from offering the benefits.

County commission chair Jennifer Roberts says it's an issue of fairness. She says it's fair to offer benefits for people in committed relationships who otherwise would be married but legally cannot.

"If we want good qualified employees and they happen to be married whether it's domestic partners or a marriage man or woman.. we should be willing to offer those benefits to those employees," says Roberts.

But by doing so could cost the county an estimated $400,000 to $1.2million a year.

Opponents like Republican Bill James believe offering benefits to same sex couples could invite a lawsuit.

He cities a North Carolina law that he says is still enforced that makes homosexual activity and soliciting homosexual activity illegal.. the police he says have arrested 244 people in Charlotte last year for engaging in crimes against nature.

"I contend that we're setting a dangerous precedent. I think ultimately we'll probably get sued. And if we do then legal tab's on Jennifer," says James.

The UNC scholar's report admits the issue has never been tested in North Carolina appellate courts.

If county commissioners approve the benefits, Mecklenburg with 5,000 employees would be the largest government agency in the state to offer domestic partner benefits.

In debating domestic partner benefits tonight county commissioners have to decide whether to offer them to just same sex couples or same sex and heterosexual couples.

Some governments will do both, but others will offer them just to gays.

Counties say they're offering the benefits to retain and attract good employees, but none of the six local governments in North Carolina who've enacted it have tracked it to see if it's make a difference in hiring.

Tuesday night the County Commission voted 5 to 3 in favor of allowing the benefits for domestic partners.