City Council Passes Benefits Bill

Historic measure expects mayoral veto, council override

On May 5 the New York City Council overwhelmingly passed the Equal Benefits Bill, legislation that will require city contractors to give the domestic partners of their employees the same benefits as they give spouses. Forty-three council members voted in the affirmative—more than enough to override a promised veto by Mayor Mike Bloomberg—with just five voting no and two legislators abstaining.

“The Equal Benefits Bill says simply but strongly that when the city uses taxpayer money to pay for employees, we should be consistent,” said Council Member Christine Quinn, the chief sponsor of Intro 137-B, “and use the same standard that we have for the municipal workforce.” Municipal employees have had domestic partner benefits since Mayor David Dinkins settled a lawsuit with gay and lesbian teachers in 1993.

The new law would apply to companies which contract for more than $100,000 in business with the city.

Hours before the bill passed, Bloomberg said, “I will veto it. You cannot use the city’s procurement policies to promote social issues. The city has an obligation to get the best services at the best price. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether I support the cause or not. If you were to hamstring the city’s procurement process to push other agendas you would never be able to get the services the city needs.”

Bloomberg campaigned for mayor in 2001 in support of equal benefits. He argued for exempting religious organizations from the scope of a benefits law. Then, in 2002, Bloomberg declared his total opposition to such legislation when he appeared at the Empire State Pride Agenda’s annual dinner. At the time, the mayor said he would use moral suasion to persuade contractors to provide domestic partner benefits as did his company just prior to his mayoral run. However, no company has provided such benefits since the mayor’s statement.

“I think the mayor’s going to face a tough Gay Pride month since he has been unhelpful in moving the conversation forward on civil marriage and will have vetoed the most important LGBT bill that comes to his desk this year,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), New York’s LGBT lobby, which made the bill a top priority in the 2001 citywide elections. Since then, along with Quinn, ESPA has helped lead a broad coalition that created support in the labor, political, corporate, and religious communities for the bill’s passage. The bill has also received the strong support of Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) who took the rare step of sponsoring a bill and Contracts Committee Chairman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) who shepherded the bill through four hearings. Quinn’s leadership proved significant right down to the last few weeks as the lesbian council member met with the bill’s opponents to address their concerns.

“I think gay people have a better understanding of friendship because we remember what it was like not to have friends,” Van Capelle said. “In several instances we have looked for leadership and friendship from the mayor and have walked away disappointed, particularly in the marriage issue recently. His unwillingness to participate in the discussion and hostile attitude toward activists who wanted to engage him showed a lack of understanding of what this community is struggling for.” Van Capelle also chided the mayor for not coming up with any alternative way of securing benefits from contractors other than through company executives’ voluntary cooperation.

The few council members who voted against the bill did not appear to be making Bloomberg’s case. Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Queens) said the bill “forces religious institutions to violate their religious beliefs,” even though Quinn agreed to an amendment that lets religious groups comply, as they did with a similar 1997 San Francisco law, by offering a designated household member the benefits instead of just domestic partnership. That neutralized the opposition of the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel. Other religious groups, such as the Episcopal diocese of New York, campaigned on behalf of the bill. In the end, only the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York lobbied against it, though they have yet to say whether they will terminate their city contracts if forced to comply with a new law. The archdiocese of San Francisco did comply with that city’s law, with only the Salvation Army forfeiting its municipal contracts, as the group has indicated it might do in New York.

Council Members David Yassky and Bill DiBlasio, Brooklyn Democrats, disputed Vallone’s characterization of the bill. “This was written so it would not encroach on religious liberty,” said Yassky.

Miller and Quinn are confident that they will override Bloomberg’s veto, which would require 37 votes. Van Capelle said that ESPA asked council members not just for yes votes and sponsorships, but for commitments on a veto override and got them.

Bloomberg is expected to bring legal action to block the implementation of the law. The mayor has said the law would usurp his city charter powers and violate the state’s municipal procurement law. A Council source said the mayor is wrong on all those legal points and insisted it was the Council that had the power to set procurement policy. The source noted that the courts overruled Mayor Ed Koch in 1985 when he tried to stop, by executive order, contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation because the Council had yet to legislate on such an issue. (The Council did add sexual orientation to the human rights law in 1986.)

During the debate on the bill, gay Council Member Philip Reed (D-Manhattan) stated, “Like the rest of my colleagues, I represent 160,000 people and work just as hard as they do, but I’m still a second class citizen.” He called on the Council to “take a step” for the city’s gay citizens “just like they’d like to see their own families recognized.”

At a press conference prior to the vote, Richard Burns, executive director of the LGBT Community Center, noted that the benefits law will “create a marketplace for domestic partner benefits in New York State,” as many insurers do not now offer the plans and may expect to cover a very large group of people.

During the debate, Leslie Thrope, for whom the bill is named, sat with her 5-year-old daughter, Sadie, in the Council gallery amongst the bill’s 20 or so supporters. At a later press conference, Thrope spoke of the ordeal in caring for her late partner, Dominique Ghossein as she was dying of cancer. Thrope’s employer denied her family and medical leave to care for Ghossein, as well as domestic partner benefits, leaving Leslie to lay out $9,000 to keep up Dominique’s COBRA insurance payments. “We weren’t in the back of the bus, we were under it,” Thrope said. Ghossein died six months ago.

After the vote, Thrope said she felt a “sweet sadness,” noting that the bill “was a long time coming.” Quinn waited so long to bring the bill up so that court cases in San Francisco upholding the validity of such legislation could play out, which they did successfully. Quinn also needed to solidify enough votes to override a mayoral veto.

City law affords the mayor 30 days to veto the bill and the Council has 30 days after that to override.

“I wish Dominique could have been here,” Thrope said. “She fought for the rights of all, including people with HIV and AIDS. We asked for very few things ourselves and when we did we weren’t given it. It’s comforting to know that other people will not have to go through what our family went through.”

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