The Outagamie County Board voted 19–14 on Sept. 24 to extend employment benefits, including health insurance and bereavement leave, to the registered domestic partners of county workers. The new benefits go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.
County Executive Thomas Nelson proposed the resolution in July, saying the city must provide equitable benefits to same-sex couples in order to compete for high-quality workers. More than 300 private companies and 26 public employers in Wisconsin already offer domestic partner benefits, putting pressure on others to do the same in order to recruit and retain the most skilled personnel.
Since July, the county board had kept the resolution bottled up in committee. But Nelson wisely submitted the proposal using an administrative maneuver that required the full board to vote on it within 60 days, said Katie Belanger, president and CEO of Fair Wisconsin.
The final vote was razor thin. Nineteen votes are the minimum required for passage. Two supervisors abstained from voting and one was absent.
The debate during the Sept. 24 county board meeting was spirited and contentious, according to LGBT community members who were present. An approximately equal number of citizens spoke for and against the resolution, said John Smallwood, Fair Wisconsin’s advocacy and organizing director.
Detractors, including Wisconsin Family Action executive vice president James Maillette, raised objections based on their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Some expressed fears about the cost of implementing the new benefits.
The Appleton Post Crescent quoted right-wing Supervisor Jim Pleuss as saying that offering the benefits would be “legitimizing a lifestyle that goes contrary to family values.” He also said the benefits would lead to fraud, because two same-sex roommates could use it to acquire health insurance.
“You and I both know the costs of health care, nowadays,” he added.
Kathy Flores, diversity coordinator for Appleton, said her city encountered no increase in health care costs during the first year after implementing domestic partner benefits. Although Appleton, the county seat of Outagamie County, extended the benefits to its workers three years ago, the surrounding county is much more conservative, encompassing a large swath of rural area.
While great strides have been made toward equality in recent years at the local level in Wisconsin, the outcome of the Sept. 24 vote could have gone either way. For that reason, Belanger said it was an even “greater victory.”
“There definitey was a lot of opposition present at this meting – more than we normally see at (such) meetings,” Belanger said. “There was a lot of hateful, homophobic rhetoric. But there were also a lot people standing up for equality. One of the county supervisors stood up and said her sister-in-law is a lesbian, and her family treats her with the same love as everyone else – and that’s what these issues are about.”
Activists credited Fair Wisconsin with getting large numbers of pro-fairness citizens to contact their representatives on the board and ask for their support. FW’s strong online social network has played a pivotal role in similar votes in other jurisdictions.
Flores said Outagamie County resident Shannon Kenevan delivered the most moving presentation during the public debate. He later recalled what he'd said in a Facebook post.
Explaining that he was thinking of his 8-year-old and 11-year-old daughters when he spoke, Kenevan wrote, “I have no idea what their sexual orientations are or might be. But here's what I know: At some point in the future one of them may have a partner who's male, and one may have a partner who is female. Their partners may both work for Outagamie County. Both of these girls have value and deserve to be treated with dignity, and each should be given equal rights and offered equal benefits regardless of their sexual orientation.”