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Revised bill would limit benefits to same-sex pairs

A revised bill is being drafted to expand eligibility for domestic partner benefits to more City of Buffalo workers, but it would apply only to same-sex couples.

Sponsors of a plan that would have given benefits to all domestic partners, including opposite-sex couples, are conceding they don't have enough support for the broader -- and more costly -- measure. Even if they could have mustered the five required Council votes, Mayor Byron W. Brown likely would have vetoed it.

By restricting benefits to same-sex couples, Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, the bill's sponsors, say they believe it could pass.

"I would still like to see everyone covered, but this is the bill that has votes at this point," LoCurto said. "And to me, we're dealing with the bigger injustice. Same-sex couples can't get married."

Kitty Lambert president of Outspoken for Equality, a gay rights group, described the lack of Council support for the original measure as unfortunate. While she agreed with LoCurto that the amended bill is a start, she also called it seriously flawed.

"It will discriminate against straight families who, for all kinds of reasons, choose not to marry," she said.

Some couples opt not to marry for religious, political, philosophical and other reasons, Lambert continued. She added that some people "cannot force marriage" on their partners.

The original bill faced opposition after Budget Director Donna Estrich issued projections on its fiscal impact. If only 4 percent -- or nearly 100 employees -- were to sign up for family health insurance, said Estrich, the city's cost would rise by $830,000 as pension expenses are soaring and state aid is reduced.

In the worst case, she said, Buffalo would face $4.8 million in additional costs if all single employees converted to family insurance to cover domestic partners.

LoCurto said the Council's research found that limiting benefits to same-sex couples typically reduces enrollment to less than 20 percent of what it would be if benefits included opposite-sex couples.

Lambert said the city shouldn't "quibble" over costs, noting that when employees are hired, the city must assume that they will receive family health coverage.

Bill supporters also note that labor contracts already make about half of all city employees eligible for domestic partner benefits. Only two employees have signed up so far, they said. City officials said the labor pacts are intended to provide benefits only for same-sex couples.

An earlier compromise was discussed that would have imposed a residency rule as a condition for obtaining domestic partner benefits. Employees who live outside the city -- hundreds of police officers, firefighters and streets employees live in the suburbs -- would not be eligible. Rivera said the measure was not pursued because the restrictions might have been struck down in court.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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