Partner benefits turned down
As national news outlets pressed for the vote tally, advocacy groups and some state lawmakers slumped through the halls of the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday. Staggering through the humanity, one Republican councilman appeared dazed as his eyes welled with tears.
Just moments after a 5-4 party-line decision, it was clear the County Council's refusal to become the first local government in Utah to offer domestic-partner benefits to gay employees weighed heavily on some.
"It pains me to send any message to someone if they take it that we don't value them," said a tearful Mark Crockett, the GOP councilman some insiders thought might provide the swing vote for the benefits proposal.
But Crockett said as long as society links offering such benefits with gay marriage, he would be hard pressed to back the controversial move.
His four Republican colleagues agreed - the council's four Democrats voted for the measure - ensuring Salt Lake County did not follow the University of Utah's lead in offering benefits for domestic partners.
"I am hugely disappointed," said an emotional Jan Donchess, chairwoman of the county's gay and lesbian employee association. "There are members of this council who in their mind knew they made the wrong decision. I'm sure Mark Crockett will lose sleep over this."
The proposal, hatched by first-year County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, caught county leaders off guard. Suddenly, this week, she was extolling the benefit of offering insurance for health, dental and life as well as funeral leave for unmarried domestic partners, gay or not.
Wilson insisted the cost would be minimal - analysts suggest less than 100 employees would qualify at an annual total tab between $37,000 and $74,000 - and proposed making those interested sign an affidavit proving cohabitation.
After the vote, Wilson said equating the employee benefits with an endorsement of gay marriage - as several Republicans argued - was a "broad leap." But she remained optimistic.
"It will happen," she said. "It's just a matter of when."
Scott McCoy, an openly gay state senator from Salt Lake City who watched Tuesday's debate, agreed.
"The younger generations are absolutely in favor of this," he said. "By fighting the fight, we're making the future come faster."
Still, Council Chairman Michael Jensen reminded everyone that Utahns voted decisively last election to ban gay marriage under Amendment 3.
"Maybe in 10 years or 20 years the county will be ready for this move," Jensen said. "My sense is the Valley spoke in November."
Fellow Republican Councilman Cort Ashton agreed, saying the community feels this benefit ought to be exclusive to nuclear families.
Plus, he worried about letting down his south and southwest Salt Lake Valley district, which he called the most conservative in the county.
"I know we are overwhelmingly opposed to this type of action," Ashton said.
Deputy District Attorney Gavin Anderson said he could not find any legal constraints to such a move. But, he noted, local governments in Virginia and Georgia had similar policies overturned because they violated state statutes there.
Democrats Joe Hatch and Randy Horiuchi argued in vain that amending the county's personnel policy for domestic partners is a matter of fairness. A self-described "hick" from Ames, Iowa, and Logan, Hatch said his awareness of alternative lifestyle came late in life, but should be accepted.
"This is not a religious issue. This is not a moral issue. This is not a right-wrong issue," he said. "It is a human issue."
Horiuchi said he represented a "triple threat" when elected: a Democrat, a non-Mormon and a non-Anglo. Being elected "demonstrated the openness of this great community."
To deny gay employees the same benefits the council members afford themselves, he said, is "dead wrong."
While Crockett insisted he could not make the measure a priority, Donchess said Tuesday's vote was a missed opportunity.
"Employees are not vanilla," she said. "I see [them] more as Neapolitan."