Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed extending health care benefits to same-sex partners of state employees, fulfilling a campaign promise to gay-rights activists despite this year's strapped budget.
The Democratic governor's proposal would allow state workers and retirees to add domestic partners and their dependents to health, dental and prescription drug plans, essentially putting gay couples on par with married spouses.
As many as 300 employees in a state work force of more than 70,000 are expected to sign up, at a cost of $1 million to $3 million.
More than 15 states and the District of Columbia provide domestic partner health insurance coverage, as do a majority of Fortune 500 companies, including Baltimore's Black & Decker and Constellation Energy Group. The gay-rights movement has made the availability of such benefits a priority, and leading advocates announced O'Malley's decision as they launched a mass lobbying effort in Annapolis. O'Malley extended benefits to same-sex partners of city employees when he was mayor of Baltimore, and he said he would do so statewide after he was elected governor in 2006. But that proposal - and other gay-rights goals - failed to gain traction during the first two years of his administration, to the chagrin of activists. O'Malley's aides said the benefits issue needed to be studied.
"This move is consistent with the governor's goal to provide affordable, quality health care to more Marylanders rather than fewer," O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said. "It's absolutely the right thing to do."
The idea of extending benefits is likely to roil some lawmakers, in particular conservative Republicans, but leaders including House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said they support it. Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie said he backs the idea but noted that it's early in the budget process.
The state is facing a $2 billion shortfall next year, and O'Malley has proposed balancing the budget through 700 layoffs of state employees and other cost-cutting measures, and by tapping reserve accounts. His administration submitted regulations regarding domestic partner benefits Friday, and his budget submitted to the General Assembly includes funding.
"We'll take a look at it along with other parts of the budget, and hopefully we'll be able to work with the governor," Currie said.
Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the minority leader, said he questions whether the benefits extension is "appropriate," given the state's financial difficulties. "My concern is about the cost," said the Republican, who represents Howard and Carroll counties.
Kate Runyon, executive director of Equality Maryland, a leading gay-rights group, characterized the benefits as "a minimal state investment" because Maryland can expect a benefits enrollment increase of less than 1 percent. But, she said, the move will have a "huge impact" on the families of qualifying state employees.
"Symbolically, it says we are going to try to take down some of the barriers between families headed by opposite-sex couples and families headed by same-sex couples," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who is openly gay.
The change also could help the state retain and recruit higher education employees, said University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, who endorsed the initiative.
Equality Maryland held a rally outside the State House yesterday and dispatched dozens of volunteers to visit lawmakers to discuss their agenda. Among the attendees was V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, who is gay. He also delivered the invocation at the start of last night's Senate session. The bishop, on his first trip to a state legislature outside his home state, praised O'Malley's administration for extending benefits for state employees but said that's only one step.
"Any step forward is a step in the right direction," Robinson said. "On the other hand, we can't see these small steps as a way of buying us off so that we don't pursue the fight for full equality."
While gay-rights activists in Maryland concede it's unlikely they will get the votes this year to approve same-sex marriage, a top priority, they are still working to add lawmakers as sponsors of the bill. O'Malley has said that he would support civil unions, but he didn't take a lead in pushing for legislation last year.
Activists also hope to win over enough lawmakers for passage of a state law to protect transgendered people from discrimination. As mayor, O'Malley signed into law a city measure addressing that issue.