On Thursday, words like “abomination,” “sin” and “Satan” were commonplace in City Council chambers as the audience weighed in on a tiny portion of San Antonio’s $2.2 billion budget.
The council listened to three hours of public comment on an estimated $300,000 line item that will extend benefits to domestic partners — both same-sex and opposite-sex — of city employees. The cost represents 0.014 percent of the city’s total annual spending, but it was such a controversial item that the council discussed almost nothing else.
The City Council adopted a budget that keeps the property tax rate steady and invests in Mayor Julián Castro’s long-range plan, SA2020. But council members Elisa Chan, Carlton Soules and David Medina dissented, breaking a years-long trend of unanimous budget approvals, because the budget included domestic-partners benefits.
The council voted 8-3 to approve the budget, which takes effect Oct. 1.
Despite the heated rhetoric, Councilman Diego Bernal said San Antonio is full of good people, and the 2012 budget reflects that. Aside from the necessities — infrastructure projects, public safety, economic development and other items — the budget “reflects the goodness in charity and respect and fairness of the people who live here,” he said.
It provides food for the hungry, assistance for poor women and children, shelter for the ill and real, meaningful services for the homeless, he said.
“The budget also contains a provision that treats a small faction of our city employees the same as all our other employees. I believe the budget reflects the values and charity and goodwill of the city.”
Councilman Rey Saldaña, who came out in strong support, said he felt like the provision had been adequately discussed and said his vote for domestic partner benefits was to send a message of respect and of support for equal rights.
Saldaña said he had no intention of trying to sway opinions.
“My job, however, is to do what I truly and deeply believe is in the best interest of the city,” he said. “And I truly and deeply believe we need to give our employees what they need to be successful. That being the case, my vote is to take care of people.”
I wish I could say that they were joining the city of Houston in promoting justice and fairness in this regard, but alas I cannot. To its credit, our City Council did pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that extended domestic partner benefits to city employees back in 2001, but unfortunately it was overturned by charter amendment referendum later that year. I don’t know about anyone else, but I for one am ready to revisit that fight. Our city needs to catch up to its sister to the west and do what’s right for its employees.
As I was looking for information about Houston’s experience with domestic partner benefits, I came across some familiar names in the articles I found, including then-Council Member Annise Parker, who led the charge for the ordinance that was eventually invalidated by the referendum; hatemeister Dave Wilson, who spearheaded the petition drive for the referendum; and former Council Member Rob Todd, who was one of the leading opponents of the ordinance on Council; it was his 1998 injunction against Mayor Lee Brown’s executive order implementing domestic partner benefits that led to the need for an ordinance in the first place. I’m Facebook friends with Todd, and I was curious what his reaction to the San Antonio news would be, so I contacted him to ask. He told me that as best he could recall, his main objection back then was being able to verify who was really a long-term partner for someone who wasn’t married to that person and who wasn’t. He says he’d have similar concerns now, but “People have more options now. You can get married in other states now, for example. Other cities have done this, and they’ve found ways to make it work – I’m sure we’d be able to figure it out. And I’ve come to the realization that treating all employees equally is the right thing to do. I think the city would be more accepting of it now, too. I believe a referendum to repeal the one from 2001 would pass. I’d vote for it if it were on the ballot. I’d put a sign in my yard, and I’d tell my friends to vote for it, too.” As would I. I hope we both get the chance to do all that soon.
UPDATE: Concerned Citizens has a good rundown of the Council discussion on this.