Embroiled in Controversy, Buttars Still Plunders the Rights of Utah’s Families
In 2005 Dianna Goodliffe breathed a sigh of relief when the City Council approved an ordinance enabling Salt Lake City employees to put adult designees other than married spouses on their health insurance plans. As soon as the program became available in Feb. 2006, Goodliffe enrolled Lisa, her partner of eight years.
Like many people in an age of rising insurance costs she says she made the move with an eye on the future and the worst case scenario for family, which includes a six-year-old daughter with type-1 diabetes.
“Right now Lisa has full insurance coverage through her employer, so it’s not like we needed [the benefits] in that sense,” Goodliffe explains. “Right now our daughter’s diabetes is well-controlled. But in the event that her disease became uncontrollable one of us would have to go to school to administer her insulin. That doesn’t work if both people are working.”
“For me it’s a relief to know that if at some point hr disease takes a turn for the worst that Lisa could choose to stay home with my daughter or go part-time and I could stay employed and maintain health insurance for all three of us.”
If the city’s adult designee program allowed Goodliffe to sleep more easily she says a bill by controversial Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, which would prevent the city from creating a domestic partner registry has been the cause of some restless nights.
Buttars announced his intention to run SB 267 on Feb. 5, almost immediately after the City Council unanimously passed Mayor Ralph Becker’s ordinance to create a domestic partnership registry for Salt Lake City residents. Titled Local Government Authority Amendments SB 267 would prevent city and municipal bodies from “creating or establishing a registry or any other means to define, identify, or recognize a domestic partnership, civil union, or other domestic relationship other than marriage for any purpose.”
Buttars said he wrote the bill because the registry contradicts a 2004 amendment to the state constitution that not only defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, but prohibits the legal recognition of ‘marriage-like’ relationships, such as civil unions.
Although Buttars has targeted SB 267 specifically at the registry and has assured employees in the adult designee program that their benefits are safe, Goodliffe has her doubts. So too does Salt Lake City attorney Ed Rutan. At the bill’s public hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 11 Rutan testified that SB 267 was worded “ambiguously” enough to do away with the registry and the citywide program. Specifically, he pointed out a line in the bill stating that designee programs were legal as long as they did not “define or establish a separate and distinct category of citizens or domestic relationships other than marriage and recognized family associations involving blood relatives.”
“That clause can be read to exclude certain employees from the program,” he said at the time.
“We never challenged [that program] because it didn’t favor any group or class for special recognition,” Buttars responded. During the bill’s hearing he accepted an amendment exempting participants in the city’s adult designee program.
The amendment stipulates that an action by a municipal body that “makes health care benefits generally available to all public employees and an approved additional named insured, including a financially dependent adult designee” is exempt, so long as it doesn’t establish a “separate and distinct category of citizens and domestic relationships” other than marriage and family associations involving blood ties.
Despite the amendment, some participants in the program say they are still suspicious of Buttars’ intentions.
“I wanna know the time frame for that amendment. Did he rewrite this bill after all of those “emotional” out cries over the weekend,” asked Melanie Schertz, a city crime lab technician, referencing Buttars’ comment about the many “emotional” stories that local newspapers have published about his bill.
Schertz is one among the 78 percent of participants in the city’s adult designee program who has not applied her benefits towards a same-sex partner. She is also among the 10 percent of that number who have listed their elderly mothers as their adult designees. Without this program, Schertz says her family would have lost everything when her father died leaving her mother Diana uninsured. Schertz estimates that costs for her mother’s generic prescriptions (to manage her Parkinson’s disease, firbomyalgia and high blood pressure) alone cost $500 a month. Additionally, the insurance also allowed Diana to get much-needed dental work.
“If it wasn’t for this insurance, we wouldn’t be able to have our home and our family life,” says Schertz, who also lives with her adult brother Kevin and her 17-year-old daughter Caitlin.
Schertz rejected Buttars’ assurances that benefits for families like hers will not be affected, saying that the real issue here was the state targeting families that don’t fit so-called traditional models.
“The mayor will do everything he can to see that we don’t lose our benefits, but I can see people like Butter, in an attempt to hurt people who are gay – people he doesn’t approve of – hurting a lot of other people, and we’re in that group,” she said. “He’s attacking 78 percent to punish the 22 percent he doesn’t like? It’s ridiculous.”
Andrea Curtis, another city employee who insures her mother through the adult designee plan, agreed.
“I think he’d like to believe that [his bill won’t affect the program],” said Curtis, who describes herself and her elderly mother as “fairly conservative” people. “But from all the attorneys I’ve talked to and my reading of the bill, it still seems to be targeting people whose lifestyles he disagrees with.”
To emphasize her point, Curtis brought up one relationship the bill appears to exclude even in its amended form: that of two friends living together in a non-romantic relationship.
“I think he thinks that, perhaps, if I had spent 20 years living with a dear friend in a nonsexual relationship that [that relationship] would not deserve to have the same rights,” she said. “I disagree with that. I think there are all kind of situations that make up families other than those who are legally married. And what if my mother were my mother-in-law. She wouldn’t be a blood relative. Does that mean I’m not allowed to care for her?”
“The whole thing seems absurd to me,” continued Curtis. “I understand when people disagree with others’ lifestyles, but I’m very uncomfortable when people try to make it impossible for people to choose their own way.”
To further complicate matters, Goodliffe said the amended bill actually verified city attorney Rutan’s prediction: if SB 267 passes, it will weaken the adult designee program because certain city employees, namely same-sex couples, will be legally excluded.
“I was even more concerned after they amended the language because then it felt much more targeted to the gay and lesbian community,” she said.
As of Feb. 22, SB 267 has been sent back to the Senate Rules Committee. With only a few days left before the 2008 General Session closes on March 5 the chances of it being brought to the Senate floor for debate are highly unlikely. However, the looming interim session and Buttars’ past history of carrying bills over from session to session have made the three families a little uneasy.
“It’s a concern for lots of reasons,” said Goodliffe. “One b/c I think Sen. Buttars is acting outside of good conservative politics, because he’s being big brother to Salt Lake City. Mayor Becker was very up front that he was going to [create a domestic partner registry] and City of Salt Lake still elected him. It was their choice and for me it feels like Buttars feels like he has the right to be moral police of entire city.”
Still, Schertz said that she didn’t expect the bill to pass easily, particularly in light of opposition Buttars has recently drawn over making what many perceive to be a deliberately racist comment on the Senate floor.
“I don’t know if it will pass,” she said. “But I don’t think Sen. Scott McCoy will let it lay down.” An openly gay senator, McCoy grilled Buttars about SB 267 during its hearing and has vowed to oppose the bill at every turn.
“There are others that agree with him. So I don’t think Buttars – especially with the bad press he’s getting – will be able to pass this easily,” she continued.
In the meantime Schertz, like Curtis and Goodliffe, has made a point of contacting her Senators and Representatives about the bill and how it could hurt her family. She has also brought up the matter among friends and other city employees – some of whom she personally knows have used their insurance benefits to support same-sex partners and elderly family members.
“It’s a humanitarian issue,” she said.
And although Schertz is a single, straight mother, Schertz’s own mother Diana showed the similarity between their situation and that of Goodliffe’s with a single comment. When Schertz said that her mother and now deceased father had acted as a second set of parents to their granddaughter Caitlin, Diana joked: “Caitlin has two moms!”