Legislation passed December 15 by the New Jersey General Assembly, that supporters say would create one of the nation’s strongest package of domestic partnership rights, is due to get final consideration by the state Senate sometime between January 8 and January 12.
The bill, which has the support of Governor James McGreevey, a Democrat, has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
According to Steven Goldstein, New Jersey campaign manager for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the domestic partnership law provides several key legal protections for lesbian and gay couples, including the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital and make medical decisions for that partner, exemption from state inheritance taxes upon a partner’s death, and the right to register a partnership with the state along with procedures for dissolving a partnership.
In terms of domestic partner benefits, the impact of the legislation varies depending on the employer. State employees will receive benefits for gay or lesbian partners equivalent to those provided to spouses. The law does not mandate that local governments or private sector firms offer domestic partner benefits, but if they are offered by an individual employer, they must be provided on the same terms as those offered to spouses.
A major advance in terms of workplace benefits comes in the mandate placed on insurance companies that provide small group policies––those purchased by companies with 50 employees or less. The insurance industry will be required to offer domestic partnership options, currently unavailable in the New Jersey market, to all employer purchasers. Consequently, small employers willing, but so far unable, to give employees domestic partner benefits will now be able to do so.
Goldstein said the New Jersey law would be the nation’s third strongest, after Vermont and the newly enacted California statue, but stronger than the law in Hawaii, the only other state to have enacted a comprehensive domestic partnership policy.
“I am confident that we will pass the bill,” said Senator John Adler, a Cherry Hill Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee. “I know of at least three Republican votes and we will get most of the Democrats. I would be astounded if we did not get at least 18 of the 20.”
Twenty-one votes are needed for the measure to clear the 40-member Senate.
Despite Adler’s optimism, which is shared by Assembly sponsor Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat, advocates are taking no chances. The New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition, a statewide umbrella group that includes 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, HIV/AIDS, and allied organizations, is urging everyone to visit its website at njlgc.org in order to send a message to their state senators pressing for passage.