Mayor Rocky Anderson and City Councilwoman Jill Remington Love are separately exploring ways to offer domestic-partner benefits, such as health and dental insurance, not only to employees' gay partners, but their heterosexual ones and other significant others - such as siblings and parents - with whom they live.
"I've always been in favor of equal benefits for employees, regardless of sexual orientation," Anderson said Thursday, vowing to sign an executive order launching the benefits if city lawyers determine the measure doesn't require City Council approval. "We need to put that in place."
Love didn't know Anderson was interested in the idea until Thursday. "I've wondered why the mayor hasn't been working on it," she said. She doesn't want the debate to be just about gay rights. She says it's about fairness "to our employees."
"Good employers across the country are expanding their benefits," said Love, who considers herself "sensitive and supportive of gay rights."
While Anderson and Love have each considered extending domestic-partner benefits for years, there has been no real movement until now. Their independent pushes come on the heels of Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson's attempt last month. After an emotional debate, the County Council voted against the measure along Republican-Democrat lines.
City politics are officially nonpartisan, but the council leans toward conservative even though residents are more liberal.
Because of this conservative bent and the near-constant tension between the mayor and council, Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Utah, suspects it may be more difficult to get a domestic-partner plan approved by the City Council than by the county.
Still Larabee says the discussion "is long overdue. I was wondering when this was going to come about."
Anderson mentioned the idea during his 2003 re-election campaign. But he said he was initially - and it turns out wrongly - advised that extending benefits might be impossible.
He said he is now also pursuing a domestic partner registry - for not only gay city employees but gay couples throughout the community.
Love said she made inquiries about expanding benefits after she was elected in 2001, but was told it would be too costly. This summer, she directed council staff to research the concept and found almost half of Fortune 500 companies offer benefits to gay partners, along with 11 states, 295 colleges and universities (including the University of Utah) and 129 city and county governments.
"It was time to ask the question again," she said.
More research needs to be done. It's unknown how many city employees would be eligible - of the roughly 2,600 employees who receive benefits, 885 are enrolled on a single plan, although it's unclear how many are gay and have partners.
The cost to taxpayers also is unknown. Salt Lake County estimated its tab would run between $35,000 and $75,000 more a year. Love said if there is a "huge price tag, it's probably not something we could do right away." Anderson estimates costs would increase by just 1 percent.
It's not even clear if the council has a say, or if Anderson can do it on his own. Love has asked the City Attorney to figure that out. She wrote a letter to Anderson Thursday urging him to pursue the idea and offering to work with him to win approval by the council if needed.
Anderson said he was pleased with Love's interest, but also took umbrage that she spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune about her letter before he read the letter.
If it comes to a council vote, Love would be an important ally for the mayor. She already has broached the idea with some council members and drummed up interest. Councilman Carlton Christensen - who helped defeat an ordinance that banned discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation (Anderson later instituted the policy by executive order) - said Thursday he is interested in the benefits discussion.
To gain Christensen's support, "It would have to have a broader inclusion than just gay couples. I would hope the fiscal impact would be minimal," the councilman said.
Election-year politics may complicate the matter. Four of the seven council seats are up for grabs in November, and three of the incumbents - Love, Christensen and Eric Jergensen - are running for re-election.
For her part, County Councilwoman Wilson is cheering the city from the sidelines.
"I hope they can do it."