Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2014

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Recruiting tool for schools or hot potato

Presidents of Nevada's public higher education campuses have an idea how to improve recruiting - but regents don't want to touch it for legal and political reasons.

The idea: Extend the benefits of employment in the Nevada System of Higher Education to domestic partners.

It's an issue regents haven't wanted to tackle. The last time it came up for discussion, 18 months ago, they tabled it for further study.

University and college presidents decided their best bet was to bypass regents and directly petition the Public Employee Benefits Board. The board will discuss the issue when it meets Wednesday in Carson City.

Although regents couldn't extend the benefits without the benefits board's approval anyway, there is strong sense among higher education officials that regents were glad to pass the buck altogether.

"People were happy when we elected to move forward on our own," UNLV President David Ashley said. Presidents view the benefits as another way of recruiting and retaining faculty.

But extending benefits to gay or unmarried heterosexual partners is often framed as either a moral issue going to the heart of family values or about fairness and equality.

Either way, several regents didn't want it to be used as a litmus test against them when they come up for reelection.

"Nevada is not the most progressive state out there," said David Damore, political science professor at UNLV. "My guess is that they just want to kick the can down the road a little and wait for someone else to take the jump.

"You can sort of picture the attack ads in your mind. Regent X votes to give gay partners tax-funded benefits, furthering the liberal agenda."

Other public boards have similarly passed on taking a stand on the domestic partnership issue. In 1999, when the Clark County Commission considered extending benefits, the district attorney issued an opinion stating that state law forbids extending benefits to domestic partnerships because of its definition of "spouse." Rather than challenge the opinion, county officials lobbied the 2001 Legislature for a change in state law. The Assembly bill failed.

Because of uncertainty over whether benefits can be extended to domestic partners, the Las Vegas City Council has not taken up the issue.

Clark County School District teachers receive domestic partner benefits through their union.

The Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, a conservative family values organization, championed a state constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2000 and 2002 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It was that law that arguably deprives domestic partners of state benefits. And the Legislature has refused to expand the term spouse to include domestic partners.

Richard Ziser, one of the leaders behind the constitutional amendment and current chairman of family values group Nevada Concerned Citizens, thinks that given the lack of action by the Legislature and the regents, the benefits board shouldn't take action either.

"If they are going to do something on this it needs to be in public," Ziser said. "Two elected bodies have refused to act on this issue and it doesn't seem right to now push it through a nonelected board."

Regent Michael Wixom - who, like Ziser, opposes domestic partnerships because they aim to redefine a marriage relationship - thinks that the benefits board is the right body to decide the issue because of its expertise in handling benefits.

Wixom said he wasn't worried about discussing the issue for political reasons, but for legal ones - whether regents even had the authority to approve benefits for domestic partners.

"It made no sense to bring that kind of decision before the board that can't make the decision anyway," Wixom said.

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