Angelica Patridaice Major (omgangiepants) wrote in ontd_political,
Angelica Patridaice Major

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Clerk expects domestic partnership rush after gov signs historic bill

MADISON, WI - If Dane County Clerk Bob Ohlsen's hunch is correct, the first Monday in August is going to be a hectic day at his office.

That's the day same-sex couples across the state, including an estimated 1,400 to 2,400 couples living in Dane County, will be able to take advantage of a historic piece of legislation signed Monday by Gov. Jim Doyle that for the first time recognizes domestic partnerships across the state. Along with the recognition come dozens of legal protections that previously were only granted to married couples, including the right to take family leave to care for a sick or dying partner, the ability to access a partner's medical records and the right to inherit a partner's property. In addition, Doyle approved granting health care benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees.

"My sense is we are going to be swamped," Ohlsen says. "Even for those who already get benefits for their partner through their employer, there is a huge advantage to applying to the registry."

Applying for the registry is the same as applying for a marriage license. Couples must provide proof of residence, certified copies of their birth certificates and their Social Security numbers. For those who have been previously married, a certified death certificate or divorce judgment is required. The fee is also the same as a marriage license, $115 per couple in Dane County.

Madison resident Dan Ross, who has been in a committed relationship with his partner for 17 years, says the cost is a small price to pay for the assurances it will provide, particularly with inheritance issues.

"Now, if we forget to include something in a will, it wouldn't be an issue for debate," he says.

The law makes Wisconsin the first state with a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage to also legally recognize domestic partnerships. Voters in 2006 passed a state-wide referendum banning same sex marriage and civil unions.

That campaign, however, is credited by many as one of the reasons the domestic registry and domestic partner benefits for state employees made their way rather quietly through the budget process this year. Likely even more important, however, was the fact that the state Assembly and Senate were both controlled by Democrats for the first time in 14 years.

While numerous attempts have been made to gain legislative approval for such benefits in the past, they were always blocked by Republican majorities. And while it was far from a slam dunk this time around, Katie Belanger of Fair Wisconsin said the statewide fight led by her group against the marriage referendum in 2006 helped create a "shift in how we talked about the issue."

"We started talking about it in terms of fairness, and people responded to that."

Despite the fact the votes didn't stack up in its favor three years ago, Fair Wisconsin kept at it. When the Democrats became the majority in the state Legislature last election, the group again set out to educate the public and lawmakers. When members of the Joint Finance Committee announced they would be holding public hearings across the state to hear from voters, Belanger said she made sure there were two or three people in committed, same-sex relationships ready to talk about the inequalities they faced because of the lack of legal protections provided to them by the state.

Ross, who is an employee with UW-Madison, has a story that was echoed by those who spoke across the state. In his case, he and his partner, who suffers from a mobility impairment, have had to pay upward of $15,000 a year for insurance over the past two years. His partner, who quit his job to return to law school, discovered that his continuation insurance under the federal program COBRA did not cover his medication, so the couple had to purchase a more costly insurance policy.

"This is a huge savings for us," Ross says.

Belanger says Fair Wisconsin also reached out to social workers and state unions to build support for their cause.

"For us, it's a civil rights issue," says David Newby, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president. "People may have their different views on being gay or straight, but that's not the issue. People in committed relationships ought to have certain basic rights. I don't think anybody should have a problem with that."

But groups such as the Wisconsin Family Council do. The group, which spearheaded the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in 2006, is also opposed to the state's move to recognize domestic partnerships.

"If the Assembly had not flipped (to a Democratic majority) in November, this never would have happened," says Julaine Appling, the group's chief executive officer.

Appling -- who claimed repeatedly during the 2006 campaign that the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage was not intended to prohibit domestic partnerships -- also claims Doyle's support of the registry and domestic partner benefits for state workers is directly tied to Fair Wisconsin's support of him during his successful bid for re-election.

"This is political payback, that's all this is," she says.

Lawyers for the Wisconsin Family Council have been looking into the legality of the registry since the governor first introduced it in his budget in February, Appling says. She added those same lawyers are now scrutinizing it.

"I do see a legal challenge to this," Appling says.

Appling says it violates the constitutional ban on gay marriage by granting same-sex couples rights similar to married couples. But the Wisconsin Legislative Council, foreseeing a potential legal battle, issued an opinion on May 6 that said the constitutional amendment did not preclude the legality of domestic partnerships. The opinion stated, in part, that "it is reasonable to conclude that the domestic partnerships proposed … do not confer a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals."

"I feel we are in cement on this one," says Rep. Mark Pocan, who, as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, played a large role in crafting and passing the domestic partnership provisions in the budget. "There will be no legal problems whatsoever."

Lee Sensenbrenner, a spokesman with the governor's office, says the governor's staff also believes the language is legally sound.

"We don't anticipate anyone stopping it," Sensenbrenner says.

Tags: lgbtq / gender & sexual minorities, wisconsin

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