Indianapolis considers domestic partner benefits

In many ways, the Clifton family personifies the concept of "family values." In this two-parent household, Judy Clifton works more than full-time as an Indianapolis Police Department public safety officer so that Iona, an ex-Marine sergeant with an advanced degree in public health, can be a stay-at-home mom for the couple"s 19-month-old daughter, Rosie. The Cliftons are fiercely dedicated to each other, and to raising Rosie, and their second child, due to be born later this year.

As Rosie scampers happily around the living room of the family"s Eastside home, Iona and Judy look on proudly. "If one of us were male," Judy laughs, "we"d have the typical Ozzie and Harriet family."

Iona adds, "We"re just a plain, average, normal family." But Judy"s employer, the city of Indianapolis, doesn"t consider them a family at all.

Judy and Iona cemented their partnership at a commitment ceremony more than three years ago. But although they share all the common elements of a marriage: a last name, a home, a bank account and a child, Iona is not entitled to any of the benefits the city provides to spouses of married couples. This translates into a significant pay gap for Judy: Without those benefits, she takes home about $3,700 less each year than would a married colleague performing the same job.

At first, the Cliftons solved this problem by taking out private health insurance, but when their policy wouldn"t cover Iona"s second pregnancy, she had little choice but to swallow her pride and sign up for the Medicaid-funded state program Hoosier Healthwise.

Nearly 140 state and local governments and a third of all Fortune 500 companies currently extend benefits to couples like the Cliftons, who are unmarried, but can prove they are in long-term domestic partnerships. On Tuesday night, after this issue of NUVO went to press, City-County Councilor Karen Horseman introduced a proposal that Indianapolis follow suit with its own domestic partner benefits ordinance for city employees.

According to Horseman, offering domestic partner benefits isn"t just a matter of fairness - it also makes good business sense. "Our city government salaries are not the highest-paying," she admits, "but at the same time, our city benefits are fairly good. An employee may forego leaving to go to the private sector if they can get these benefits for their partner."

Judy Clifton agrees. She has considered leaving the city for an employer that offers domestic partner benefits, but she"s committed to her work as a public safety officer, and has been with the city for more than 12 years. Clifton is just the kind of seasoned employee that Horseman is hoping her ordinance will retain. She estimates that about a dozen of Indianapolis" 1,200 employees would sign up for domestic partner benefits, costing the city an additional $44,000 a year - a fraction of its $14 million annual budget for employee health insurance.

Horseman predicts that the ordinance, if passed, could actually save the city money that would otherwise be spent in recruiting and training new employees, and will help attract a diverse city workforce. She notes that several of the city"s top private employers, including Anthem, Bank One and Conseco, already offer domestic partner benefits. "The people in those board rooms, when they make the decision to do this, don"t do it if it"s going to cost them money," Horseman argues. "It"s not a social issue for them - it"s looking at their bottom line, it"s an economic issue."

This argument is different than the one used by the city of Bloomington back in 1997, when they became the first - and, to date, only - Indiana city to offer domestic partner benefits. According to Bloomington Human Rights Commissioner Barbara McKinney, Bloomington began offering domestic partner benefits in order to comply with the city"s non-discriminatory employment policy.

Sean Lemieux, director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union"s Project for Equal Rights, agrees that Indianapolis" current policy does discriminate against partnered gay and lesbian employees by denying them equal pay for equal work. "[Indianapolis] creates an impossible standard for gay and lesbian employees. They say to them, "You can have this benefit if you marry your partner," and on the other hand, they say you can"t marry your partner. They have this terrible catch-22."

Horseman"s ordinance would correct the catch-22 by offering benefits to both same and opposite sex partners, provided they comply with a six-month waiting period, and file an affidavit of partnership stating that the couple shares financial responsibilities, and intends that their relationship last indefinitely.

Although the ordinance makes no specific mention of partners" sexual orientation, domestic partner benefits are being framed as a gay/lesbian issue by conservatives who view the ordinance as endorsing homosexuality. Horseman acknowledges that the ordinance faces stiff opposition from the 5-3 Republican majority on the council"s Rules of Public Policy Committee. Even the Cliftons don"t hold out much hope that the ordinance will pass out of committee on its first time through. "Realistically and statistically, it probably won"t," Judy says.

Horseman remains optimistic. At a rally in support of the ordinance held on Sunday, she vowed, "If we lose on Tuesday, that means we lost that battle - it doesn"t mean we lost the war."

For supporters of domestic partner benefits, the issue is much larger than sexual orientation: It"s about pro-family, pro-fairness policies for the city. Citing best-selling economist Richard Florida, who argues that attracting diversity is key to economic and cultural development, Horseman says domestic partner benefits are an important step towards making Indianapolis a world-class city. "Diversity is a wonderful thing," Horseman says. "Who wants to live in a place where everybody"s the same? That would be very boring."

Click here for the followup story on how the ordinance fared at Tuesday"s council meeting.

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