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Wednesday October 18, 2000

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Same-sex benefits program in the cards, official says

Headline Photo

By Erin Mahoney

Aizona Daily Wildcat

Group will try to maneuver around political, funding issues

Faculty and staff members have reason to hope for university-wide domestic partner benefits in the next few years, a UA official said last week.

Members of the University of Arizona's OUTReach program - a networking group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered faculty and staff - will meet with administrators next month about options for providing same-sex benefits, said Neal Dorschel, OUTReach chairman.

"We need to get some numbers on the table," Dorschel said. "The UA has been much more progressive in making proposals."

Under the group's proposal, health benefits and tuition waivers would be extended to UA employees' same-sex domestic partners, said Dorschel, who is also a university human resources specialist.

The proposal would not include opposite-sex domestic partners because those couples have the option to legally marry, he added.

But there are obstacles.

Some state laws prohibit supporting non-married couples, so OUTReach will meet with an attorney before finalizing any plans.

Dorschel also said he is not sure that the UA could provide same-sex benefits without the approval of the Arizona Board of Regents or the state Legislature - something he does not look forward to.

OUTReach does plan, however, to meet with a legislator in December to assess the attitudes in the Legislature before the January session begins.

"We're not recommending that the university go to the Arizona Board of Regents and fight for this," Dorschel said. "It's very controversial politically."

Regent Judy Gignac said ABOR has never discussed same-sex benefits, so she could not comment on the Board's inclinations.

"If the politics of the state allows for such coverage, it just amounts to finding the dollars to pay for it," Gignac said. "And that's a big 'just.'"

Dorschel said he is looking into alternate ways of funding the program so UA will not have to apply to the Legislature, but added that he is not sure where the money would come from.

If same-sex partner benefits are implemented, Dorschel said he expects fewer than 120 employees to participate.

"In terms of cost of the program, it isn't going to be a burden to the community," he said.

UA President Peter Likins - who was faced with the domestic-partner issue at this month's Town Hall meeting - said he is not yet ready to respond to a plea for same-sex benefits.

Likins said he needs to find out who has the authority extend benefits to domestic partners, and also needs to find a definition for "domestic partner."

He added that he also needs to know the costs involved in such a venture.

"At present, however, I just don't have the answers," Likins said in an e-mail interview. "In their absence I have no basis for predicting the response to the request for domestic-partner benefits."

Dorschel said he has been pleased with the UA's response, and added that similar lobbying groups at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University have not been able to reach administrators.

"I feel positive (at UA) because these options are not being explored at NAU and ASU," he said. "We are very much supported by our administration."

Such support may be a national trend.

Last month, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation announced a 25 percent increase this year in the number of employers offering domestic-partner benefits.

As of August, 3,572 organizations - including governments, colleges and universities, and businesses - offered benefits to their employees' domestic partners, the campaign reported.

Additionally, 65 percent of these groups offered the benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

The City of Tucson and Pima County also have benefits programs, Dorschel said, which he finds encouraging.

"We are conducting business in a community that is friendly to domestic-partner benefits," Dorschel said.

Other schools in the West - including the Universities of New Mexico, California-Los Angeles, and Washington - have similar partner-benefits programs in place.

At the University of New Mexico, the domestic-partner benefit program extends to both sexes, but still stirs up occasional controversy, said a spokesman for the human resources department, who asked not to be named.

"It affects (the school's reputation) both positively and negatively," he said. "There are some individuals who would look at the domestic-partner affidavit and say, 'I don't want anything to do with that university.'"

But the program has helped recruit some professors, he said.

"There have been faculty members who have told me specifically, 'the reason I came to the university was because of the domestic-partner stuff,'" the spokesman added.

The same could happen at UA, Dorschel said, and added that the proposal is a matter of equal rights.

"The issue is not sex, not gender," he said. "The issue is equity and compensation."