A recent Michigan education budget proposal moved into the state Senate on May 5 with a provision that cuts funding by an additional 5 percent for universities that offer benefits to the unmarried partners of employees, including those in same-sex partnerships.
The provision was proposed by State Rep. Dave Agema (R–Grandville) and supported by the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives. The proposal would impact the University since it currently provides domestic partnership benefits to its employees, and would result in a 20-percent loss in funding for the University if passed, in addition to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed 15 percent cut to higher education.
Gabe Javier, assistant director of the University’s Spectrum Center, said the provision’s consequences would extend beyond the University community.
“I think it hurts the state of Michigan as a whole,” Javier said. “It sends a message about the state’s values (which results in) people thinking that Michigan is not LGBT-friendly.”
Javier said the University has “always been committed” to providing assistance to both heterosexual and LGBT employees, but he is uncertain to how the University will react if faced with funding cuts.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said the amendment was passed as a voice vote — a case in which each representative’s vote is not recorded — and House Democrats were not expecting the proposal.
“This was part of a huge bill and this was one last little add on that (Republicans) threw in there,” Irwin said. “I don’t suspect they’re concerned about what gay people or gay families think about their political agenda.”
Irwin said the amendment is unlikely to pass in the Senate or even Gov. Snyder, who, according to Irwin, is not focused on “pursuing social conservatism.”
Despite the apparent need for conservation of state funds, Irwin said it’s doubtful that the provision will improve finances for the state if it is enacted.
“Obviously if you take away benefits from employees you’re going to save money, (but) that money won’t be saved for the state,” Irwin said.
University alum Gilia Smith, who is writing a dissertation on health benefits for same-sex partners at universities, said her research has shown an increasingly hostile environment for gays and lesbians since gay marriage was banned in Michigan.
She said new co-habitation and age requirements put in place by universities make fewer same-sex couples eligible for health care benefits. To comply with the law and remain competitive, universities opened up access to health care to unmarried heterosexual couples as well.
Smith added that while it is currently legal for a public university to provide benefits to unmarried couples in the form of an “other designated beneficiary” program, the law does not require that colleges do so.
Although universities are given these options, Smith said eliminating health care coverage for unmarried couples would be detrimental to both the state’s economy and the advancement of gay rights.
“(Same-sex partner benefits) send an important signal to the gay and lesbian community that this is an open and inclusive environment, and it maintains all of the University’s recruitment edges in the state,” Smith said. “It gives them the ability to compete for international talent in (the) academic labor market.”
Irwin said the University’s desire to retain its competitive edge might mean a lawsuit in the near future if the budget passes in the Senate and that he “would assume” the University would pursue legal action if the benefits of some employees were compromised.
“The University wants to compete for the best and brightest employees,” Irwin said. “They’re spending lots of money on lawyers. It could be many years before we get a decision, (but) history is on the side of people who believe in equal rights.”