Deseret Morning News graphic

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson vetoed an insurance benefits plan Tuesday — a veto the City Council likely will override by Thursday night.

Anderson nixed the council's plan to offer insurance to adult designees of city employees, including unmarried partners, adult siblings, parents and long-term roommates with whom the employee has long-standing joint financial obligations.

The council passed that plan Feb. 7 with a unanimous vote of all seven members. And since only five votes are required to override the mayor's veto, that sets up a heads-on conflict between the two branches of government.

"The mayor believes he would be doing a disservice to Salt Lake City Corporation employees and the citizens of Salt Lake City if he did not veto the ordinances," wrote Patrick Thronson, the mayor's spokesman. "Considerations of equality, fairness and justice should always trump considerations of political expediency."

Anderson fielded questions about the veto through Thronson, who explained the mayor had said everything he wanted to say in a statement accompanying the veto.

Anderson had campaigned against the council's plan, instead trumpeting his own plan to offer insurance to hetero- and homosexual partners of city employees — a plan that landed the city in court eight days after Anderson put ink to paper.

Several Salt Lake residents and a religious law group from Arizona sued the mayor, saying his domestic partner benefits plan violated Amendment 3 to the Utah Constitution, which establishes marriage as between a man and a woman.

Third District Court Judge Stephen Roth heard arguments on the case Jan. 5 and has not ruled yet on whether Anderson's order was legal.

Jill Remington Love, the council member who brought partner benefits to the City Council, said she was dissatisfied with Anderson's veto.

"I'm disappointed that the mayor chose to do it," Love said. "I think we had a better approach."

The mayor's reasoning in the original order emphasized equality for employees of varying sexual orientations and martial status. His veto Tuesday, however, veered more toward economic and logistical arguments, including a note that the City Council's plan could cost four times more and "opens the door to heightened opportunities for fraud and abuse," he wrote.

The City Council's plan would cost the city between $140,000 and $225,000 to cover 58 to 96 employees. The mayor's plan would have cost between $17,000 and $63,400 for 10 to 22 employees.

Council Chairman Dave Buhler said the council chose the more expensive plan because it wanted to offer insurance to more people.

"We actually get a better bang for the buck," Buhler said. "We cover more people on a proportionately smaller cost. We did things to try to control costs in a way that would still be fair to employees."

Anderson also argued city employees did not support the council's plan and cited 158 votes, a 17 percent turnout, from the Public Employees Council that offered a 68 percent vote against the insurance plan. Many of the comments focused on the increase of premiums all city employees would bear, regardless of whose plan is adopted. The 158 votes were voluntary comments and not part of a representative sampling.

Anderson said the City Council's decision deprived the city of a chance to clarify its policy with Utah courts.

"By the timing of its action, the council wastes valuable taxpayer dollars and the efforts of hard-working city employees expended in this litigation, and undermines the considerable efforts already expended to obtain a court ruling on the crucial issues involving equality of benefits," Anderson wrote.

Buhler said he does not want to wait for a court to decide his city's policy.

"When is the court going to rule? Why didn't they rule before we acted? They had plenty of time to rule and they still haven't ruled. Maybe they're waiting to see what the Legislature does now," Buhler said. "Those are all things that we can't control. It seems that what we ought to respond to is what we can control. We ought to make the best policy we can that is fair to the most number of people."

Buhler thinks the council will override Anderson's veto at its regular meeting Thursday night.

Sometime this week, Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, likely will lobby for the Utah House of Representatives to pass his bill that limits how cities can offer insurance to recipients other than spouses and dependents. Christensen's measure, HB327, would require that employees who use insurance for people other than traditional dependents pay the entire cost increase. The bill also would require that city or county councils approve offering additional insurance, rather than allowing an executive branch order, such as the one Anderson issued.

The City Council's current plan is set up so that the city contributes money for all employees' insurance premiums, including the adult designees. The city is waiting for the end of the legislative session before evaluating when to begin offering the insurance, said Jennifer Bruno, a City Council policy analyst.