County Council members on Tuesday engaged in a debate about the institution of marriage versus the concept of a domestic partnership.
The exchange came before two votes in which the council repealed a series of laws since 1999 that required the county to provide domestic partner benefits to county employees and a 2010 law that required county contractors to provide same-sex domestic partner benefits to their employees.
Council member George Leventhal said he first looked into the repeal after County Executive Ike Leggett sought in April to expand domestic partner benefits to opposite-sex couples. The expansion was part of the negotiated collective bargaining agreement between the county and MCGEO, the union that represents most county employees. Opposite-sex domestic partner benefits had already been extended to county firefighters and police officers.
Leventhal pointed to the rationale for domestic partner benefits—the fact same-sex couples couldn’t marry—as outdated since same-sex marriage was approved in Maryland by a 2012 ballot measure. Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley eliminated all domestic partner benefits for state employees after the change and governments around the country have considered eliminating their domestic partner benefits after the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that same-sex couples must be provided the right to marry.
“Why would we extend domestic partner benefits to opposite-sex partners? It’s a vestige of an earlier time,” Leventhal said Tuesday.
But council member Marc Elrich, who voted against both bills, countered that the institution of marriage may actually be the concept that’s “antiquated” and “lingering from another era.”
“I just see this as sanctifying one kind of relationship and saying this is legitimate,” Elrich said. “People get married and end up living apart, getting separated, getting divorced. We don’t judge any of that.”
Elrich said he doesn’t see signs that county employees are taking advantage of domestic partner benefits by claiming domestic partnerships where relationships don’t exist. He also said the county could require stricter standards, such as the filing of tax returns from the same address, to show a legitimate domestic partnership.
“I don’t see why living together with somebody married is more legitimate than living with somebody unmarried,” Elrich said. “In this day and age, when marriage is frankly a declining institution…I don’t know why we would perpetuate that.”
Leventhal said he wasn’t questioning the legitimacy of anyone’s choice not to marry.
“Marriage is a legal designation which entitles its participants to certain tax benefits, certain insurance benefits, certain classifications under the law,” Leventhal said. “Montgomery County government simply cannot be all things to all people and it cannot spend unlimited amounts supporting anything anybody asks for. …I loved my wife before she was my wife and we lived together, but I didn’t expect she was entitled to my health insurance.”
The actual fiscal impact of repealing domestic partner benefits will likely be tiny. Under a grandfather clause in the repeal, the domestic partner of any current county employee who is receiving benefits would continue doing so. But partners of future county employees and current county employees who haven’t yet filed for domestic partner benefits wouldn’t be eligible.
County staff said there are 125 domestic partners of county employees and retirees now receiving benefits. Thirty-seven are in a same-sex domestic partnership and 88 are in an opposite-sex domestic partnership.
The repeal of benefits for county employees is estimated to save the county $28,695 in the first year of the repeal.
Council members Tom Hucker and Craig Rice sided with Elrich in voting against the repeal for county employees, but for a different reason. Both indicated the council shouldn’t get rid of the domestic partner benefits since they were negotiated as part of the county’s collective bargaining agreement with its employee unions.
“If respect for collective bargaining requires me to vote for something I don’t agree with, then that’s a bridge too far,” Leventhal said. “Then why am I here?”
The second bill, to repeal the law requiring county contractors to provide same-sex domestic partner benefits, passed 8 to 1, with Elrich the lone vote in opposition.