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Springfield mayor backs civil union benefits
News update posted Jan. 4, 2012
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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Springfield Mayor J. Michael Houston has come out in support of civil union spousal benefits for city employees, after a committee voted unanimously against extending the benefits in December.

The Joint Labor/Management Health Care Committee, a Springfield committee comprised of city staffers and retirees, voted to keep its current eligibility standards for insurance, which do not include civil union spouses.

The vote caused uproar among LGBT rights organizations who argued that the decision violated the spirit and letter of the civil union act.

Committee members said that the vote was legal because Springfield is self-insured, freeing it from the same regulations placed on commercially-ensured employers. According to an actuary, the bill for extending such benefits would total $725,000, or an increase of 3.4 percent. The cost of insurance is already set to rise for Springfield by 3.75 percent on March 1, the start of its fiscal year.

But on Jan.3, Houston, who had said the vote was legal, changed his position and came out for extending benefits in a letter published on the city's website.

"Given the experience of other units of government that are providing civil union coverage, I do not believe that there will be a large number of participants joining the plan," Houston wrote. "I urge the committee to strongly consider that assumption in reevaluating its position, especially since it is able to review and adjust premiums on a quarterly basis."

According to Houston, the actuary had calculated that 65 employees would apply for civil union spousal benefits. To date, however, no employee has inquired about them.

Houston maintained that the initial decision to deny benefits was legal under federal law. However, he said, he believes that a court would "more likely be predisposed to hold that a broadly-worded state law would mandate coverage of civil union partners in the same manner as spouses."

LGBT rights organization the Civil Rights Agenda ( TCRA ) testified against the vote in Springfield Jan. 3.

"I am confident that the Committee will come to the right decision," said Anthony Martinez, executive director of TCRA, in a statement. "We are dealing with these issues daily as employers throughout Illinois comply with the civil union law."

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