LINCOLN — With more businesses and universities offering domestic partnership benefits to their employees, officials are urging that the University of Nebraska follow suit.
A majority of the NU Board of Regents indicated Friday it is open to the idea.
No one on the eight-member board opposed a plan to offer health insurance coverage to the same-sex or opposite-sex live-in partners of NU employees. Five indicated support, and the others said they wanted more details before making a decision.
NU President J.B. Milliken made the proposal during an informational session of the regents. Milliken said he likely would bring a formal proposal to the board for a vote as soon as its Dec. 8 meeting. If approved, the new benefits would take effect July 1.
Several regents said their biggest concern would be cost.
“The populace will say this is all about homosexuality — I don't believe that is the issue,” said Regent Randy Ferlic of Omaha. “My objections — if I have any — would be whether there's any impact on tuition and the use of state funds. It's a budget matter.”
David Lechner, vice president for business and finance, projected the financial impact of the “Employee Plus One” proposal as comparatively small.
Based on previous studies, Lechner estimated less than 2 percent of employees — 200 or fewer — would participate. He predicted annual expenses would be $1.5 million or less, about a 1 percent increase in NU's annual health insurance cost of $120 million.
Milliken noted that all of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's peers in the Big Ten, including the University of Iowa, offer domestic partnership benefits.
“Now that we are in the Big Ten, it makes the absence of these benefits more visible to the marketplace,” said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. “I hope you understand the importance of these issues for achieving the kind of university we want to achieve.”
The proposal has the support of the chancellors and faculty senates at all four NU campuses, as well as student governments at UNL, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
However, Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council, said his group will oppose the benefits proposal. He said the proposal tacitly endorses both gay marriage and cohabitation.
Riskowski said he continues to believe that most Nebraskans oppose gay marriage, based on the 2000 vote enacting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“I think if a vote were taken today, the results would be the same,” he said. “I think Nebraskans are a conservative people, and I don't think they would be in favor of the university putting any sort of OK on domestic partnerships.”
Several regents, however, said the university needs to adopt the policy to remain competitive.
“I think the evidence of the need for it, from a competitive standpoint, is pretty clear,” said Howard Hawks of Omaha. “There are a couple of areas we need to bore into, such as what is its cost and who will pay for it.”
Regents Kent Schroeder of Kearney, Bob Whitehouse of Papillion and Jim McClurg of Lincoln also said they expect to support the proposal.
Milliken and other university leaders stressed competitiveness as a key reason to adopt the benefits. Besides the Big Ten schools, a majority of the peer institutions for the four NU campuses offer domestic partner benefits.
Perlman said he has received letters from former faculty members who said they were forced to leave UNL because their partners became ill and they could not afford the expense of medical care.
He has been told by academic department managers that they've had candidates turn down jobs because UNL does not offer insurance benefits for domestic partners. They also believe some candidates never even consider teaching in Nebraska because they do not perceive it as welcoming.
Milliken and Lechner also cited a Human Rights Campaign survey that indicated a majority of Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies offer the benefits.
Several major Nebraska companies offer domestic partner benefits, such as ConAgra, Union Pacific Railroad and Mutual of Omaha. A 2009 list compiled by The World-Herald also included Gallup, PayPal, First Data and Google.
State government in Iowa has offered domestic partner benefits since 2004 — before gay marriage was legalized in that state, said Ed Holland, state benefits manager.
He said the Iowa Board of Regents enacted domestic partner benefits for University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa employees even earlier.
The domestic partner benefits resulted from collective bargaining efforts in 2004, Holland said. The benefits cover both same-sex and unmarried, opposite-sex partners.
However, the provision is used by only about 100 of Iowa's 27,000 state workers, he said. Adding domestic partners did not result in a premium increase.
The State of Nebraska does not offer domestic partner benefits.
Roger Wilson, controller, said state government would not be directly affected if NU chooses to offer domestic partner benefits. Although university workers technically are state employees, the NU personnel system and benefit structure is “completely separate” from that of state government.
The NU proposal also would extend coverage to dependent children of employees and their domestic partners.
The university is self-insured and pays 80 percent to 85 percent of the premium amounts on behalf of employees.
Based on the experience of other businesses and colleges that offer the benefit, Lechner predicted that more opposite-sex couples than same-sex couples would use the program. He noted that because federal tax law does not recognize domestic partners, employees would have to pay income taxes on the premium amount paid on behalf of their domestic partners.
To be eligible for the benefit, a domestic partner likely would have to meet at least three of the following five tests:
» Hold a joint mortgage, loan or lease, or joint ownership of an automobile.
» Be designated as a beneficiary on the partner's life insurance, retirement account or will, or be named as executor of the partner's will.
» Hold mutually granted powers of attorney for purposes of health care or financial management.
» Be authorized to sign for the partner's bank account or credit card.
» Hold a joint bank account or credit card.
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