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Dade to consider domestic partners' rights

BY STEVE ROTHAUS AND MATTHEW I. PINZUR, mpinzur@miamiherald.com

Domestic partnerships could be officially recognized by Miami-Dade government this year, guaranteeing hospital visitation rights and allowing county workers to buy health insurance for their partners.

''It's wrong to deny anyone health insurance or to deny anyone hospital visitation rights,'' said Heddy Peña, executive director of SAVE, Miami-Dade County's leading gay-rights group. ``When someone is at their most vulnerable, they want to know that their family can see them when they're in the ICU ward in a coma.''

Five of the 13 county commissioners cosponsored the measure -- Chairman Bruno Barreiro and members Audrey Edmonson, Carlos Gimenez, Sally Heyman and Katy Sorenson. Many other commissioners said Tuesday they had not seen the item and would not comment.

At least one, Joe Martinez, said he would oppose the bill.

''I just don't believe in it,'' he said, declining to elaborate.

Any pair of unmarried adults who live together and are not related by blood could register as domestic partners, regardless of sexual orientation. The bill insists the partnerships would not ``be construed as recognizing or treating a domestic partnership as a marriage.''

Domestic partnerships are recognized in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and insurance benefits are offered in the Miami-Dade school district.

Nonetheless, the bill could reopen Miami-Dade's old and bitter fight over gay rights.

''It's just another effort to demean marriage,'' said Anthony Verdugo, executive director of Miami-Dade's Christian Family Coalition. ``Our gut feeling is that it's pseudo-marriage, marriage-like -- even though it says it isn't.''

The county does not help pay for insurance for workers' spouses or children, so adding similar unsubsidized care for a partner or that partner's children would have little direct cost to government.

Other components of the bill would guarantee that a domestic partner would have the same rights as a spouse to visit a jailed or hospitalized patient. The partner's parents and children would have the same visitation rights as a spouse's.

The bill is scheduled for a preliminary vote on Tuesday, followed by a public hearing at the Economic Development and Human Services Committee on March 12. If approved there, a final vote of the full commission could come in late March or early April.

''It really isn't about the [gay] community benefiting -- anyone who lives together will get benefits,'' said Ron Brenesky, a co-founder of Unity Coalition, one of Miami-Dade's leading Hispanic gay-rights groups. ``There is no doubt in my mind that we will have opposition from our more conservative commissioners, but at the end of the day, they will see the light.''

Firefighters union chief Stan Hills said he has lobbied several years for partner benefits, and that about 50 of his union's 2,200 members would qualify. He cited the example of a member who lived with a woman and her son for years, never marrying. The son was left without insurance.

''We're living in a society in which not everyone gets married,'' Hills said. ``Whether the parents decide not to get married or are a gay couple, how can you morally penalize children?''

Commissioner José ''Pepe'' Diaz said he might support the bill if it allowed blood relatives to register. He has long wanted to allow county employees to buy insurance for a live-in parent or sibling.

''I want to make it for everybody,'' he said.

That could complicate the debate, however, because an influx of elderly people could increase the county's costs as it runs its own health insurance -- and that could force an increase in premiums.

County Mayor Carlos Alvarez could not be reached late Tuesday, but said last year he would support insurance coverage for domestic partners. That rankled some opponents, who cited an election-year pledge signed by Alvarez and others in 2004 that promised not to recognize partnerships. He said he did not remember signing the pledge.

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Joe Martinez, said he would oppose the bill.

''I just don't believe in it,'' he said, declining to elaborate.

Joe Martinez doesn't believe in it so none of us should! What an ass!

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