By Michael Wunder, News Editor
A decision on whether the University of Nebraska adopts inclusive employee benefits is likely to be made during the December Board of Regents meeting. The decision will take place after the Regents review the policy, which was proposed last Friday by NU President James Milliken and Vice President for Business and Finance David Lechner.
Milliken and Lechner gave a brief presentation Friday morning prior to the Board’s meeting, stressing that the policy would increase the university’s competiveness and align UNL with Big 10 peer universities, as well as bring UNO and UNK into alignment with their peers.
The policy would extend healthcare coverage to a qualifying unrelated adult who shares an employee’s household and with whom the employee is financially interdependent, or would provide family coverage for the employee, the other adult and their dependent children, according to a NU press release.
A majority of the regents seemed to favor the policy, none spoke out against it and the main concern was funding.
The focus on finance was a relief for students, staff and faculty members who provided an impetus for a policy many believed would stir controversy in a state historically opposed to same-sex relationships.
“I am pleasantly surprised,” said UNO Arts and Sciences Sen. Terrence Batiste, who introduced legislation in the UNO Student Senate urging Regents to adopt the policy. “It is both refreshing and invigorating that the issue is not morality, but rather money.”
Regent Randy Ferlic of Omaha expects the public to latch onto same-sex issues, but he told the Omaha World-Herald the primary concern is financial.
“The populace will say this is all about homosexuality — I don’t believe that is the issue,” Ferlic said. “My objections — if I have any — would be whether there’s any impact on tuition and the use of state funds. It’s a budget matter.”
The presentation was Ferlic’s first real look at the policy, he said.
Lechner projected that up to 2 percent of NU employees would apply for benefits, which would result in a $750,000 to $1.5 million annual increase in healthcare expenditures. Currently, the university spends more than $120 million a year on health insurance.
During the presentation, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman—who supports the policy—took an opportunity to stress how adoption would strengthen NU’s position in a competitive marketplace.
“This university has some very ambitious goals moving forward-certainly at UNL we do-in terms of student growth, in terms of research growth, in terms of quality, and this continues to emerge as an important criteria for us achieving those objectives,” Perlman said. “It is a competitive market for talent. I have on my desk letters from individuals who have left the university because of our failure to provide these kinds of benefits.”
Inclusive benefits programs are in use not only in universities across the country, but also in many successful businesses. As of 2009, at least 83 percent of Fortune 100 companies and at least 59 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer some form of domestic partner benefits, according to research done by the Human Rights Campaign.
Some groups in Nebraska may oppose the policy on religious or moral grounds.
In an interview with the World-Herald, Executive Director of the Nebraska Family Council Al Riskowski said his group will oppose the benefits proposal.
The proposal encourages both gay marriage and cohabitation, Riskowski said. He said he expected most Nebraskans to oppose it.
“I think if a vote were taken today, the results would be the same,” Riskowski said. “I think Nebraskans are a conservative people, and I don’t think they would be in favor of the university putting any sort of OK on domestic partnerships.”
Overall, Batiste said he had “heard nothing but overwhelming support,” other than a vote against his resolution during a student senate meeting. Opposing voices, though, are essential to discourse, the student senator said.
“It is very important that voices of dissent are heard loudly and clearly,” Batiste said.
Lechner predicted more opposite-sex couples would adopt the policy than same-sex couples.
Although the state of Nebraska does not offer domestic partner benefits to public employees, NU employees, technically state workers, wouldn’t be affected by the state policy, controller Roger Wilson told the World-Herald. The NU benefit structure is separate from state government.
The benefit program would be available for workers and partners who pass a “3 out of 5” test. Eligible employee partners would have to meet three of the following five requirements:
-Hold a joint mortgage, loan, or lease, or joint ownership of a car.
-Be a designated beneficiary on the partner’s life insurance, retirement account or be named as executor of the partner’s will.
-Hold mutually granted powers of attorney for health care of financial management.
-Be authorized to sign for the partner’s bank account or credit card.
-Hold a joint bank account or credit card.
Going forward, Batiste said he and his colleagues are optimistic the regents will work out any wrinkles and adopt the policy.
“We feel pretty good about our chances,” he said.