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Rocky to sign order on benefits

Mayor warns lawmakers not to thwart domestic-partner plan

As promised, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has prepared an executive order that would give medical insurance benefits to the non-married partners of city employees and their children.

Anderson, who will sign the order during a Wednesday ceremony, advised state lawmakers against taking legal or legislative action to thwart the order, as some have threatened to do.

"Not only is the allowance of equal benefits the right thing to do, but legislative action to undermine the power of local governments to provide equal benefits would have significant negative economic ramifications for our entire state," Anderson said. "Conventions and businesses would not want to come here as a result."

Draft copies of the controversial order were given to City Council members Monday, and the mayor asked if they had any input before he signs the order later this week.

The request for input was seen by some as an effort to be collaborative, even if the mayor is bypassing the council and signing an executive order instead of pursuing an ordinance, which would require council approval. Anderson decided to bypass the council after city attorneys advised him offering such benefits was an administrative function of his job.

"This is a courtesy on his part to let us know that it's happening and see if there are any comments or suggestions," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said. "I do think it's an effort on this issue to be collaborative."

Included with those draft copies were several documents, including Anderson's reasoning for signing the order. It is estimated that the order will cost the city between $38,000 and $113,000 and that between 10-20 of the city's 2,600 employees will take advantage of the new benefits.

Council members say they were a bit dismayed Anderson only included non-married couples in his plan, instead of broadening the effort to include other dependents like parents and adult children. That may raise the hackles of conservative state lawmakers who have threatened to withhold money from Salt Lake City because of Anderson's politics in the past.

"I hope that this action won't be something that causes punitive action by others," Love said.

Utah's only gay state senator defended the mayor's plan, stating it was sound public policy that will strengthen non-traditional family units.

"There's no way they could ever possibly get the benefits that come from that relationship," Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, said. "To that extent I understand what the mayor is doing, and I appreciate very much what the mayor is doing."

But Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Sandy, said that Anderson's effort violates state law that says governments can't create any law (it's unknown whether an executive order would qualify as a "law" under the statute) that gives equivalent benefits to non-marriage relationships.

"Based on current law what he proposes to do is illegal and therefore has no effect," he said. "It's tantamount to the San Francisco mayor performing same-sex marriages."

Christensen says there will likely be a legal challenge to Anderson's order. If that fails there could be legislation restricting all Utah cities from offering benefits to non-married couples.

Anderson said he doesn't think such a measure would pass the Legislature.

"There are a few that might want to, but I think the Legislature as a whole is not that punitive or discriminatory," the mayor said. "I certainly hope not."

Anderson's executive order would offer insurance benefits to non-married couples, but the mayor can't, by executive order, extend bereavement or dependent-leave benefits to those couples. Anderson plans to deliver an ordinance to the council on Wednesday that, if passed, would offer those bereavement and dependent benefits as well.

Such an ordinance could be a testy issue for some more moderate council members. Most, if not all, council members would have liked to extend benefits to a wide range of people instead of just gay partners. Siblings, roommates and other groups should have similar access to benefits. Some council members favor a plan that would allow any city employee to designate one adult to whom benefits could be offered.

"We should be more inclusive and less exclusive," council member Dave Buhler said, who also said the benefits should be prescribed in ordinance because next year the council will be called on to provide funding for the plan.

Also, executive orders often expire when the mayor that signed them leaves office while ordinance's stay in effect until changed by council vote.

"The weakness in the mayor's bold decision is that in two years it may be gone," Council woman Nancy Saxton said. Still, Saxton said, she wasn't sure the City Council was ready for a potentially divisive, public discussion on giving health benefits to gay partners.

"I don't know if all the council members were interested in having this as a big public discussion," she said.

A recent Dan Jones & Associates poll for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV showed 54 percent of Salt Lake City residents favor Anderson's plan to extend health benefits to domestic partners of city employees while 42 percent oppose it. Statewide, the poll shows most Utahns opposed the Anderson's move. All told 64 percent of Utahns said the were against it while only 31 percent were in favor.