House Bill 1797 would fix University’s domestic partner benefits problem

Kallen Dimitroff

Currently, the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are debating the right to gay marriage. The debate has invoked the same themes that have surrounded this issue for decades: morality, church and state, biology, the definition of marriage, constitutionality and the rights of citizens. While the debate remains contentious and the ruling could go either way, the proceedings have reminded me of the discrimination that persists at the University of Texas at Austin, discrimination that is not perpetuated by the University itself, but by the state of Texas. 

Specifically, I am referring to domestic partner benefits, or “competitive insurance benefits” as they are sometimes called. In the state of Texas, domestic partnerships and same-sex marriages are both prohibited. Accordingly, state law prohibits this University, a state institution, from providing health insurance to the domestic partners of LGBTQ faculty members as they are only permitted for “spouses.”

 Personally, I find this abhorrent. Regardless of your stance on the morality of same-sex marriage, how could anyone logically assert that two people providing the same services should not be given the same benefits? 

To use an analogy offered by Chief Justice John Roberts, if Joe can extend benefits as a University employee because he married Sue, why can he not receive those same benefits if he marries Tom? Does Joe all of a sudden become less deserving of those benefits? Does his work suffer? Is there any logical reason to treat him differently as an employee because he loves a man instead of a woman? No, it’s illogical, it’s unconstitutional and it’s hurting our University’s competitiveness in recruiting and retaining top-tier faculty and staff.

 Beyond the moral debate, there’s a strategic one at play. For years, potential applicants have forgone the opportunity to teach and research at UT because their partners cannot receive benefits: “In sum, we fail to make the best hires because UT does not offer same-sex spouse benefits,” said Nicolas Shumway, previously chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “I’m certain that versions of this story get played out across campus every year. Indeed, without a meaningful change on same-sex spouse benefits, UT will always be at a hiring disadvantage in comparison with the best universities in the country, both public and private.”

Indeed, many other college campuses across the nation provide domestic partner benefits. In fact, 304 universities — including every Ivy League school — provide the benefits. 

Of the 304 schools, some are private, some are public, some are in Texas and some are elsewhere around the country. However, any of them may appeal to potential faculty for a variety of reasons better than we can. For example, a faculty member at this University earning $80,000 per year loses out on approximately $8,108 in benefits because of the lack of domestic partner benefits. Further, partners who are ineligible for this University’s health care coverage can face insurmountable expenses through other insurance policies. This doesn’t even mention the difficulties faced by partners who have no access to any health care at all. 

Fortunately, there might be some change on the horizon. State House Bill 1797 is pending in the State Affairs Committee. HB 1797 authored by state Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, seeks to change the State Insurance Code. These alterations would allow UT to provide insurance benefits to the domestic partners of faculty and staff. I understand that this is part of a much larger debate in our nation about marriage equality. However, the next time you turn on CNN or read about the debate on Facebook, remember that it isn’t just some case about abstract ideas. Rather, it’s a case that impacts many of your friends, professors and the University you attend. Indeed, this is a very close issue.

Dimitroff, a University-wide representative in Student Government, is a history and government junior from Houston.

Correction: A previous version of this column misidentified Nicolas Shumway. He is no longer chair of UT's department of Spanish and Portuguese.