Council Nixes Mayor’s Benefits Veto

Council Nixes Mayor’s Benefits Veto

Bloomberg threatens legal action to block sweeping law giving health benefits to registered partners

The largest expansion of domestic partner rights in the history of New York City was affirmed by the New York City Council Monday as they comfortably overrode Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of the Equal Benefits Bill.

The new law, requiring contractors to provide the same benefits to the domestic partners of their employees that they grant to spouses, is set to go into effect in 120 days. But Bloomberg is expected to order the city’s Law Department to try to block the law’s implementation in the courts, arguing that it infringes on his executive ability to oversee the cost effective procurement of city services.

“We can’t tell another company what’s in their best interest,” Bloomberg said. “They’ve got to decide for themselves.”

The mayor’s obstruction on the Equal Benefits Bill has infuriated its chief sponsor, City Councilmember Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea), who is a lesbian, and the law’s other advocates.

“Mayor Bloomberg’s disdain for the rights of domestic partners is never-ending,” said Quinn, triumphant in marshalling a 41-vote override in the 51-member body, but angry that the legal wrangling may not be over. “His hypocrisy is astounding.”

Noting that that the mayor has signed several procurement bills, including one to make contractors pay a “living wage,” Quinn said, “Every lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered person with a domestic partner should call the mayor to tell him not to use tax dollars to fight our partner rights.”

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a prime coordinator of the Equal Benefits Bill Coalition, said, “This one action will have a more tangible impact on LGBT families than any measure ever passed by the City Council.” He called upon the mayor to “allow the will of the people to be put into practice.”

As a mayoral candidate, Bloomberg initially supported the bill, but even before his election he began articulating reservations, including “carve-outs” for religious groups who oppose same-sex relationships. Bloomberg’s latest opposition to the legislation was philosophically based on not wanting to utilize the municipal procurement process to “advance social policy.” Throughout a lengthy hearing process and subsequent legislative wrangling, the Council addressed Bloomberg’s objections and found his concerns unwarranted.

“The State Constitution and Municipal Home Rule Law expressly permit localities to adopt local laws that set standards for ‘the wages or salaries, the hours of work or labor, and the protection, welfare, and safety of persons employed by any contractor or sub-contractor performing work, labor, or services for it,’” stated a Council legal memo released on June 28.

Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, the director of Catholic Charities for the New York Archdioce, appeared at a Contracts Committee hearing to raise last minute objections, even though the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese complied with a similar law there in 1997. Sullivan would not say whether he would go to court to fight the law.

Agudath Israel, another conservative religious city contractor, withdrew its opposition to the legislation when a clause was rephrased to allow religious groups to comply with the law by letting their employees name one other person on their benefits policy, regardless of relationship. However, the archdiocese still opposed the bill.

Leslie Thrope, a lesbian whose partner Dominique Ghossein died from cancer, was a prominent witness who spoke of how her employer, union Local 32BJ, a city contractor, refused to provide health benefits to Ghossein. Referring to her daughter Sadie, Thrope testified that “a five-year old can understand what adults can’t seem to—that you should treat others as you would want to be treated, no more, no less.” The benefits bill, “Dominique’s Law,” is officially named for Ghossein.

“This bill is about taking New York into the 21st century,” said Councilmember Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn), who is African American, recalling a time when white officials made “justifications… for [blacks] not accessing what everyone else could access.”

Quinn expressed gratitude for the strong support of Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) in the law’s passage.

“New York City should not be investing its money in companies that discriminate,” said Quinn, calling the law “good for business.” Quinn also cited the leadership of Contracts Committee chair Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) and the counsel to the committee, Rob Newman, in gaining passage.

Councilmember Phil Reed (D-Manhattan), who is gay, also noted that the EBB is not just a “gay rights bill,” but also covers heterosexual domestic partners. Lesbian Councilmember Margarita Lopez (D-Manhattan) said it is “not a social justice issue, it is a labor relations issue.”

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