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Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele signs the domestic partner resolution on Aug. 3.

Abele signs benefits resolution

The same-sex partners of Milwaukee County workers are set to receive health insurance coverage under a resolution signed by County Executive Chris Abele.

“Done,” Abele said to applause after applying his signature to a resolution that supervisors approved on July 28 by a supermajority vote of 13-5. The benefits will become available to employees beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

“I’ve been looking forward to it, like a lot of you, for a while,” Abele said prior to signing. “With this resolution, we’re bringing our benefits into line with the rest of employers and the 21st century.”

The LGBT rights group Equality Wisconsin, working with Fair Wisconsin and Milwaukee County Supervisors Marina Dimitrijevic and Eyon Biddle, coordinated the effort to enact the benefits. Abele got immediately behind the resolution, first announcing his support at the June 10 opening of Milwaukee PrideFest.

“Today’s victory is a critical step in the movement to achieve full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Wisconsinites,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger in a statement. “Providing domestic partner health care coverage is an investment in the future of Milwaukee County and its employees. We are thrilled with County Executive Chris Abele and the Milwaukee County Board’s visionary leadership … and commitment to providing an inclusive workplace for all.”

The Aug. 3 signing of the resolution marked the two-year anniversary of the day that same-sex couples began registering as domestic partners in Wisconsin under a law that passed before Republicans took over all branches of state government. To date, more than 1,800 couples have registered, and only 37 of those have terminated their partnerships, according to Belanger.

In Milwaukee, more than 300 same-sex couples have registered their partnerships and only two have terminated, said Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki.

“Compare that to the divorce rate,” he added.

Among those witnessing Abele’s signing was Jenny Wayd, a clerical worker in the medical examiner’s office. Wayd said she probably would not apply for the benefits, because her partner already receives health insurance coverage through a state job. If either woman did add the other to her insurance plan, she would incur a tax penalty due to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

But Wayd said she’s excited about the development because it represents a step toward fairness.

In contrast to the jubilant mood at the signing ceremony, Wayd said she’s heard a lot of negative comments about the cost of the partner benefits from her co-workers. That’s the criticism that anti-gay activists used to avoid enacting the benefit policy in the first place.

In 2009, former County Executive Scott Walker vetoed a resolution simply asking the county board to look into the cost of the benefits. He claimed the cost would prove to be about $4 million, a figure that was vigorously disputed by experts familiar with the issue.

Based on the experience of other companies and government entities that offer the benefits, county officials have estimated they will actually cost about $700,000. The City of Milwaukee pays about $252,000 a year for its domestic partner benefit plan. “The cost of benefits does not justify denying them,” Abele said.

“I’m baffled by the fact that I’ve been paying for (other county workers’) children and for their spouses all these years,” Wayd said. “If they don’t like it, let them take their spouses and children off the benefit plan or let gays marry. But they want to use this both ways against us.”

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