MONTPELIER — Thirteen years to the day after the Vermont House spent 12 hours debating civil unions, lawmakers Friday gave broad bipartisan support to legislation that will require certain companies to extend health care benefits to the same-sex spouses of their gay and lesbian employees.
The legislation approved Friday wasn’t so momentous as the law that, back in 2000, made Vermont the first state to give legal recognition to the partnerships of gay and lesbian citizens.
But for many legislators, the House’s 139-5 vote provided a cathartic milestone in a civil rights movement that hit an apex last year when President Barack Obama voiced public support for gay marriage.
“I think many of us can take great satisfaction and pride in that historic (civil unions) debate, that historic vote, when we look at the movement forward in many parts of the country,” said Rep. Bill Lippert, a Hinesburg Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill approved Friday aims to close a loophole that prevents gay employees at a handful of companies from enjoying the same family benefits plans offered to their heterosexual colleagues. Vermont legalized gay marriage in 2009.
Wal-Mart, for instance, extends health coverage to the spouses of its workers — unless they happen to be gay. According to Susan Donegan, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, there’s nothing illegal about the unequal treatment.
“We’ve got a situation where employers who have their own self-funded, generally large insurance group fall outside the jurisdiction of our state insurance laws,” Donegan said last month.
The state also lacks authority over companies that have bricks-and-mortar locations in Vermont but are headquartered out of state. The legislation tries to solve the problem by directing those companies to provide equal treatment to gay and straight workers.
Only five legislators, all of them Republicans, voted against the bill. The wide support stood in stark contrast to the gay marriage vote in 2009, when lawmakers overrode Gov. James Douglas’ veto of the gay marriage bill by only one vote. Only six Republicans crossed over to join Democrats in 2009.
Rep. Tom Koch, a Barre Town resident who voted “no” on gay marriage but “yes” to Friday’s bill, said the latest vote wasn’t a referendum on the merits of same-sex unions.
“My views on that have not basically changed, but I look differently at this bill, because the decision has been made, the policy has been set, and that fight is history and I accept the result,” Koch said.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, however, said he thinks the vote signifies an ideological evolution among a large swath of the Vermont GOP. Turner voted against gay marriage.
“And when I look back at that, I think I probably voted the wrong way,” Turner said.
He isn’t the only prominent Republican to have thought better of his opposition. Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock last year said that if the vote on gay marriage were held today, he would vote in favor of the measure — he opposed it in 2009.
“I think the Republican Party, myself included, needs to be more inclusive,” Turner said. “I think we need to show Vermonters we’re moving forward on these issues. This is a diverse and accepting state, and we need to be a diverse and accepting party.”
Douglas this week declined a request to discuss whether his views have changed.
Donegan said she doesn’t have any data on how many businesses or workers the legislation passed Friday would affect. And it’s doubtful the law would survive a legal challenge, since states generally aren’t allowed to preempt federal authority over self-insured companies.
But similar laws in California and New York have had the desired effect, and Rep. Paul Poirier, the Barre City independent who played a key role in getting the bill to the floor, said the companies he’s spoken to — Wal-Mart among them — have said they’ll voluntarily comply with the new requirements.
“They said, ‘we want to be good stewards here in Vermont,’” Poirier said. “Nobody wanted to come in and testify against it.”
Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, said Vermont need not mount a defense to any legal challenges that might come. Companies that wish to disregard the new statute, he said, can try to make their case in the court of public opinion.
“Any challenge to this law would be a front-page story,” Pearson said.
Tom Little, who as then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee was at the center of the vicious debate over civil unions, was coincidentally in the building Friday, on business for his current job at the Vermont Student Assistance Center.
Little recalled the Vermont State Police escort that accompanied him and other lawmakers as they made their way from the committee room to the House floor for the historic debate.
“I told (Poirier), it’s no fair you get to report that bill without an angry mob waiting for you outside,” Little said. “There was such a visceral anger and fear over this issue back then, such hostility. It’s remarkable to see the progression now.”
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