Saturday, February 26

Stealth Equality in Virginia

Last year, as some long time Bhaus readers may recall, gays across the Commonwealth pushed the General Assembly hard to change a law -- unique in the country -- that forbade insurers from offering domestic parnter health coverage to companies headquartered here. While the House of Delegates passed such legislation, a divided Senate committee tabled the bill, killing it for the year. Some of the sponsors actually blamed gay groups for raising the visibility of the law, thereby awaking massive resistance from conservative groups, which doomed passage from skittish legislators.

Flash forward to 2005. I received an alert from Equality Virginia today which revealed that the House of Delegates passed SB 1338 by a narrow vote of 49-48 on Thursday. Since the bill originated and was passed by the state Senate, all that remains is for Gov. Warner to sign it, which he has said he would do "as an economic development measure," according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The alert relates the history of this year's bill:

SB 1338, sponsored by Senator Janet Howell and co-patronned by Senators Devolites Davis, Edwards, Potts, Saslaw and Watkins and by Delegates Brink, Callahan and Dillard, allows employers and insurers to agree on the class of persons to be covered by group health insurance plans...

Currently, Virginia law says that only employees and their spouses and dependent children can be covered by group health plans. Howell’s bill authorizes insurers to write coverage for "any class of persons as may be mutually agreed by the insurer and the group policyholder." This means that, if the insurance company agrees, an employer’s group plan can extend beyond spouses and dependent children to include other classes of persons including disabled adult children, an employee’s parent(s), sibling(s), in-law(s) living in the employee’s household, a personal care assistant living in the household of a disabled employee, or domestic partners and their children.

Testimony on the bill by business owners and executives, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce uniformly supported passage of the bill, which was seen as a deregulation bill and an economic development issue.

Testifying in the House Committee on Labor and Commerce, Jerome Strauss, Senior Vice President of Virginia-based Versar, Inc. said "...if the Committee wants the Commonwealth to lose jobs and revenues to other states, then keep the current laws. By supporting this bill, on the other hand, you will continue to see the high growth rates and higher revenues we currently enjoy."

In a letter to the Speaker of the House dated February 22, 2005, Paul N. Wojcik, President and CEO of BNA. Inc., a Washington-based company with 1,000 employees considering a move to either Maryland or Virginia, underscored the importance of changing the law to Virginia's economic development efforts: "We believe that any restriction on BNA's ability to provide benefits already offered to all of our employees, could be an obstacle to our considering any potential relocation to Virginia."

The active support of the Vice President for Government Relations of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce was key to the bill's ultimate success.

Notice anything missing? Yes, you guessed it -- no gay support mentioned. Instead, a coalition of pro-business groups unrelated to gay rights issues provided effective cover to delegates too chicken to do the right thing anyway. So it goes in Virginia politics. Oh, well, it's the result that counts, right? I suppose we should thank our timorous representatives just the same.

Sidenote: Apparently, über-bigot Del. Bob Marshall tried unsuccessfully to amend SB 1338 four times on the House floor Thursday. I think I need to make a token financial contribution to the guy who is set to run against the bastard in November.