In re-electing incumbents Carol L. Fletcher and Mario Acosta to the Pflugerville school board, voters affirmed the district’s policy to provide health benefits to domestic partners, including those in same-sex relationships.
Pflugerville – led by then-Superintendent Charles Dupre — became the first school district in Texas to offer such benefits, with five trustees supporting the initiative and one voting against it. That was last year. The decision became the backdrop for Saturday’s election, which was watched by districts outside of Pflugerville that are considering offering similar benefits to their employees.
Though a local decision, it resonated beyond the school district on Austin’s northern edge: At the Capitol, a lawmaker filed a bill to deny state funding to school districts that award health insurance benefits to employees in domestic partner relationships; and recently, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion saying that that Pflugerville and other governmental entities are violating the Texas Constitution’s ban on gay marriage in offering same-sex health benefits. Despite those gathering political forces, Pflugerville voters spoke loudly and clearly with a decisive vote backing candidates that demonstrated fairness and good business sense in dealing with district employees.
“We are happy that Pflugerville voters took a stand for experience and that every employee has equal rights,” said Fletcher, who won 57 percent of the vote against his opponent Lance Sandlin.
Acosta, who prevailed with 54 percent of the vote over contender Tony Hanson, said: “We were pretty sure that when we voted for the benefits, the majority of Pflugerville residents favored them, too.”
The Austin school district now is in the process of crafting similar policies that offer health insurance benefits to its employees who are in domestic partner relationships, including same-sex relationships.
With their vote, Pflugerville residents have given their thumbs up to such policies. But there are other challenges that might impede implementation of those policies or require them to be restructured. At the Capitol, Drew Springer, R-Muenster, in response to Pflugerville’s policy, filed House Bill 1568 that would defund school districts that offer health benefits to partners of employees because such policies are prohibited by a constitutional amendment Texas voters passed defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. So far Springer’s bill is stalled. Thankfully, its chances of passing the Legislature this time around look grim. Many public entities offer such benefits as much for maintaining a competitive edge in recruiting or managing health care costs as for the moral reason of eliminating discriminatory policies. So not only is it good business, but the right thing to do.
The larger threat to Pflugerville’s health benefits comes from a recent attorney general’s opinion, though it isn’t clear whether the opinion would eliminate such policies also offered by the City of Austin and Travis County, or just require that they be restructured to fall within legal limits.
Earlier this month, Abbott released an opinion stating that domestic partnerships as recognized by the local governments across Texas are close enough to the definition of marriage to violate a constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions. The amendment goes further, barring the state or a political subdivision of the state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage. That interpretation seems to make Pflugerville school district’s health benefits for domestic partners illegal.
But the same opinion also references “a clear legislative intent” from then-state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who authored the amendment, which seems to support a district’s right to such decisions locally as long as they are done in ways that fit with the constitution.
“This amendment to the Constitution would not negate or set aside any contract that an employer wanted to make with his employee. … It does not change what a city might do. It just says that they won’t recognize anything that creates the same legal status identical to or similar to marriage. It does not stop them from providing health benefits to same-sex partners. It’s not intended to do that.”
Whether Pflugerville’s health benefits policy stands as is or is restructured one thing is sure. Voters left no doubt that they want all district educators and school employees to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness.