From our media partners Sun-Sentinel
Gay rights advocates celebrated when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws denying federal benefits to same-sex couples last week.
But here, where Florida law bans same-sex marriage, domestic partners of Palm Beach County employees must pay taxes on the benefits the county has offered them since 2005.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Mary Lou Berger suggested changing that. She asked the county legal and finance teams to investigate ways to reimburse domestic partners for the extra tax they pay for their health care benefits.
"I've always believed in equality," Berger said.
No one knows yet what the cost will be to taxpayers if commissioners approve some kind of tax reimbursement plan. Last year 55 domestic partners had registered with the county to receive benefits. The benefits extend to unmarried opposite-sex partners.
Part of the cost would depend on what type of model the county uses.
One option is to follow the lead of the city of West Palm Beach, which calculates the employee's income and tax bracket and reimburses the value of the federal tax, said Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
But there's a problem with that model, Hoch said. West Palm Beach reimburses the tax, but the federal government sees that reimbursement as income. So it gets taxed, too, and the employee still has to pay.
Miami Beach last month passed an ordinance offering a sort of double reimbursement, which pushes the total take-home pay for domestic partners even closer to equal. Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams suggested the county staff examine the Miami Beach model.
"The goal is equal take-home pay," Hoch said.
Hoch, 58, founded the Human Rights Council 25 years ago, inspired by his own brush with discrimination. As a young law student sitting for a job interview to become an associate at a firm, he asked how his homosexuality would affect his chances of becoming a partner.
"They withdrew the offer," he said.
He now works as an employment-dispute mediator, but he has lobbied Palm Beach County's public institutions for more equal treatment of same-sex couples.
The repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act on June 26 prohibits the federal government from denying benefits to same-sex married couples, but it does not change laws in 35 states restricting gay marriage. That leaves local advocates like Hoch to press for a hodgepodge of policy stopgaps.
"There's not a whole lot that we can do with these types of issues because we don't recognize gay marriage in the state of Florida," Berger said.Ben Wolford