Gay and lesbian Palm Beach County government employees should no longer face a tax penalty on health insurance for their unmarried partners, the County Commission decided Tuesday.
Palm Beach County's planned "tax equity" measure would use local tax dollars to start reimbursing employees with registered domestic partners for the additional federal income taxes they face when accepting county health benefits for their unmarried loved ones.
Since 2006, the county has been offering health benefits for unmarried domestic partners of county employees. But because the federal government doesn't equate an unmarried partner to a spouse when it comes to taxes, those employees end up paying taxes on those benefits, unlike married county employees.
"All people need to be treated equally," said County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger, who pushed for the tax equity measure that got the commission's go-ahead Tuesday.
It will initially cost the county about $136,000 a year total to boost the salaries of employees with domestic partners in order to reimburse them for the increased federal taxes they pay for their partners' benefits. That cost grows if more employees enroll in the program or if health care costs rise.
That extra county cost for the tax equity program could also go away if the federal government changes its tax policy or if Florida law is changed to recognize same sex marriage.
The Palm Beach County Commission's unanimous, bipartisan support for enacting a tax equity measure was particularly encouraging, said Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. The council for years has pushed for more domestic partnership benefits and for ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
"Today's vote ensures that county employees and their families will be treated equally with respect to take home pay -- regardless of whether those families are based on a marriage recognized by the state of Florida or a domestic partnership recognized by Palm Beach County," Hoch said.
Domestic partnership registries are aimed at establishing rights and financial benefits for couples that are either not allowed to marry or choose not to get married. Domestic partnerships can be established by both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Palm Beach County now has just 48 employees with registered domestic partners, 39 of whom are opposite-sex couples. The other nine have same-sex partners.
The county's program is meant to offer an alternative for couples who aren't allowed to get married, but legally it can't exclude opposite-sex couples who opt not to get married, county officials said.
Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams pointed out that the tax equity measure could lead to some employees registering domestic partners just for the pay increase, but he said it's still worth enacting.
"I support trying to achieve equity here," said Abrams, who heads the County Commission.
While the county's new policy doesn't immediately affect many people "it is also meant to send a message," Berger said.
"It's the right thing to do," she said.
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Click below to see all the Florida counties that don't recognize domestic partnerships, according to analysis of the Families First bill: