Rock County committee votes against benefits resolution

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

JANESVILLE—Fairness, inevitability and even Rock County's own policy were all cited as reasons to allow employees in same-sex domestic partnerships to share health care benefits with their significant others.

But despite nearly a dozen supportive speakers, the Rock County Board's staff committee voted 4-2 on Tuesday against a resolution that would have done just that.

Supervisors Hank Brill, Louis Peer, Kurtis Yankee and Rock County Board Chairman Russ Podzilni voted against the resolution. Supervisors Mary Mawhinney and Marilynn Jensen voted in favor.

The resolution still has to go to the full county board and could find passage there.

About 20 people attended Tuesday's meeting, and speakers in support of the resolution included county members, county employees and former county officials.

The most personal appeal came from Mary Kay Vukovich, a worker at the juvenile detention center.

Vukovich has worked for the county for years, starting as a psych tech at the county's health care center. For several years she has worked at the juvenile detention center, and she would like to be able to provide benefits for her partner.

Vukovich and her partner are in a registered domestic partnership and were married in Iowa. Same-sex marriage is not legal in Wisconsin.

Vukovich said the issue is about fairness. 

“This is not about same-sex marriage, this is not about religious beliefs,” Vukovich said. “This is about being fair and equitable.”

Gays and lesbians serve throughout the county, she said.

“We help you when somebody breaks into your home, when somebody is injured,” Vukovich said. “We're all around you, we take care of you, we're no different than you.”

Emily Miller, who also works in law enforcement for the county, said she counts on her co-workers to back her up.

“I count on these people to have my back,” Miller said. “They do the same job, they should be treated the same way.”

Jim Hay of Janesville told supervisors that several years ago he served on a church committee charged with deciding about the status of gays and lesbians at the local branch of the First Congregational Church of Christ.

“At the time, I was surprised by the number of people who had gays and lesbians in their family and friendship circles,” Hay said.

He also was “surprised by the number of people in their 70s and 80s” who were supportive of the Congregational Church becoming “open and affirming” of gender identity and status.

“This is an issue we never would have discussed ten years ago,” Hay said. “And ten years from now we will wonder what the fuss was all about.”

Anissa Welch, who works for the county as a juvenile probation officers and who is an Milton alderwoman, also alluded to the inevitability of offering such benefits. She said had worked with three boys ranging in age from their teens to their 20s. For them, she said, domestic partnership benefits will be “foregone conclusions.”

Several people pointed out that the county's own policy prohibited discrimination against people based on sexual orientation.

None of the audience members spoke against the policy, but the committee was provided with a letter from Don and LaVerna Hilbig of Beloit.

The couple argued the ordinance goes against the “spirit and the law found in our State Constitution regarding same-sex marriage. The domestic partnership registry is simply an end run to circumvent the Constitution.”

They also wrote that both homosexuality and cohabitation were “detrimental behaviors.”

“To recognize and legitimize these conditioners and behaviors by law would promote their being normal and healthy. Statistics, moral and natural law and common sense tell us the opposite,” they wrote.

Peer said he had mixed feelings about the resolution, and that he felt it really needed to be voted on by the whole board. He said he had a lot of questions in his mind about the administration of the policy.

Many of the points made by the speakers regarding love and fairness could be argued either way, he said.

“Someone mentioned 'love'” Peer said. “You have to define that to apply that.”

For example, “love” could mean “loving the sinner but not the sin,” he said.

Yankee wondered what would happen if people in a domestic partnership broke up. Couldn't the other person stay on the county's health insurance?

Rock County Human Resources Director Dave O'Connell said the county recently had to tighten its requirements for heterosexual couples so they could not defraud the system in a similar way. 

Podzilni pointed out that it could cost as much as $100,000 to $150,00 a year to add the benefit. Other estimates have calculated the cost to be a 1 percent increase in total health care costs.

O'Connell said he believed the 1 percent estimate was high.

The resolution now will go to the full county board, either at the Jan. 23 or Feb. 6 meeting, Podzilni said.

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