The Austin Chronicle

AISD: No Partner Benefits ... for Now

District says decision is a delay not a reversal

By Richard Whittaker, July 5, 2013, News

The Austin Independent School District has backed away from its plan to implement domestic partner benefits. But the district's insurance committee is adamant that this is not a reversal of policy, just a change of schedule. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, who sits on the committee, said, "I have no doubt that we'll get there. It's just a matter of when."

AISD's administration announced on March 26 its plan to offer insurance to domestic partners of employees, both opposite sex and same-sex couples. The plan would have been presented to the board in September as part of the 2013-14 budget, at an estimated cost of $600,000 per year. But on June 27, the administration announced that the line item will not be included.

The decision was made in the face of a simple political reality. If the district pushed ahead, then it might be sued by the state of Texas. On April 29, in response to a request from Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a damning opinion on the legality of such policies, writing, "The Texas Constitution prohibits political subdivisions from creating a legal status of domestic partnership and recognizing that status by offering public benefits based upon it."

Abbott's letter comes at a complex time for domestic partner benefits. During the regular legislative session, Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, had filed House Bill 1568, which would have removed state accreditation for districts offering partner benefits. That measure failed, and since then the U.S. Supreme Court has also entered the fray – refusing to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that an Arizona ban on domestic partner benefits was discriminatory. But with Abbott's letter threatening lawsuits under the Texas Constitution, and under advice from its legal department, the district erred on the side of litigation caution.

But the fight is not over. Zarifis said he will be meeting with Equality Texas and AISD Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser this week to discuss options. But there is no discussion of placating GOP homophobia by implementing the policy while excluding same-sex partners, he said, "because we want everyone to be part of it." He accused the state's GOP leadership of hypocrisy in their claims to be the party of small government: "At one end, they want the federal government to step out of local affairs, but that stops at the state level."

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