January 14, 2010 | by Harley Dennett
Virginia lawmakers to consider 2 LGBT bills

Equality Virginia CEO Jon Blair said the two bills expanding workplace discrimination protections and permitting employee life insurance benefits for domestic partners were the lobby group’s top priorities with the best chance of passing in 2010.

Other bills to be considered by committees, but with a more doubtful future, include extending reproductive technology access to unmarried couples.

After a series of Assembly sessions where attempts were made to further restrict the rights of LGBT Virginians, including the successful constitutional amendment banning same-sex relationship recognition, it appeared to LGBT rights lobbyists that no further attempts were being planned this session.

“The atmosphere is not perfect, however it is imminent,” Blair told DC Agenda. “Equality is going to happen in Virginia and the handful of people who are trying to hold it down will only be successful for so long.”

Blair’s big-ticket item is passing a bill barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, enshrining in law former Gov. Tim Kaine’s executive order that incoming Gov. Bob McDonnell declined to continue.

Like the executive order it will replace, if passed, the workplace protection will only cover public employees. Blair hoped, though, that step would be just the start.

“Virginia is the only state in the nation where it is 100 percent legal to fire someone based on their perceived sexual orientation. Protected classes are race, gender, creed — those kinds of things,” he said.

“This [bill] means every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Virginian should be protected in the workplace from being fired based on their sexual orientation. This is public employers this year.”

The lobby group’s second priority this year is a group life insurance bill that would allow insurers and employers to mutually agree upon any group of people they’re willing to insure.

“Virginia is quirky in having the Dillon Rule,” Blair said. “Right now insurers want to provide life insurance to Virginians and employers want to provide life insurance to Virginians, but they do not have express permission from the state. Until they have permission from the state, they are not able to do that because the Dillon Rule prevents that.”

Virginia is the last state to have kept the court-authored law dating back to the 1860s, which limited the powers of municipal corporations to only those granted by state legislatures or where the state has not defined its own powers in that area. Local government entities are just some of the employers that have sought to provide life insurance to domestic partners, but were thwarted by state law.

“Employees want it, employers want it, and insurers want it, and all we need is the General Assembly to bless it,” Blair said. “We’re not just talking about GLBT people here. Any person who has an otherwise qualified adult in their household who they want to provide insurance to, including straight couples.

“I’m the perfect example. I’m straight and engaged. Until my fiancé and I are married, I can’t provide life insurance to her. If you don’t think that impacts where she chooses to work, you’re crazy.”

Like the federal Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, supporters say lack of action in the matter hurts the government and the state.

“This isn’t just about recruiting new employees, either,” Blair said. “There are companies here that have more than one major headquarters and they cannot promote employees from one of those offices to their main headquarters here because employees will refuse the promotion based on losing their benefits. Because when they live in Montreal or Seattle or wherever they are allowed to provide benefits to those partners and when they move here they lose them.”

The task of lobbying to get both bills passed falls primarily to Virginia Equality’s chief counsel, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, a 24-year veteran in the assembly.

“Given that the business community has made it clear the life insurance bill is a common sense piece of legislation and voters made it clear that non-discrimination is an issue they’re in agreement should be a policy of the Commonwealth, we shouldn’t have any problems getting these bills through,” she said.

If that sounds too optimistic, Guthrie Gastañaga said she wishes it didn’t.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen bills people have agreed to co-patron a bill they’ve ended up voting against, and they’re just as likely to come to you and say I’ll vote for it on the floor, but I’m not in a position to co-patron it.

“I’m not counting any chickens before they hatch, but I’m sitting on a bunch of them and keeping them really warm in this cold weather.”

The life insurance bill is similar to a previous law passed in 2005 that extended the rights of employers to offer health insurance to domestic partners. That law passed by just one vote in the state House, which Guthrie Gastañaga says validated the lobby group’s approach to working with both parties.

Virginia Equality came under fire for that bipartisan approach to lobbying when it continued to endorse Del. Tom Rust, a Republican, over a Democratic candidate with strong support from the LGBT community.

But the relationship building has apparently paid off. Rust’s office confirmed to DC Agenda that the lawmaker will introduce the life insurance bill again this session.

Blair said the arguments already appealed to Republican principles.

“When you explain the life insurance bill is revenue neutral and won’t cost employers anything, that means something,” he said. “When you can say a comprehensive non-discrimination policy is good for business and employers recruiting employees — and 88 percent of fortune 500 companies in Virginia already voluntarily have a non-discrimination policy because they on their own decided it was a good idea — that means something.”

The state’s only openly gay delegate, Adam Ebbin, a Democrat, noted that he felt there would be “more than one Republican” joining him in supporting both bills.

“The insurance industry and business community very much support this. If people see the advantage of this bill for a wide variety of potential policy beneficiaries, I think it can pass.”

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