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While Mayor Rocky Anderson's benefits plan has landed Salt Lake City in court, the City Council is trying to craft an alternate that would cost more and cover more people.

The primary difference between the council's and the mayor's plan is in the number of people who would qualify. Under the mayor's proposed plan, cohabiting adult partners of city employees would qualify for benefits, or an estimated 10 to 22 people.

In contrast, the council's proposal — which it will discuss tonight — mentions employees who live with a "nonrelated adult, their sibling or their parent," which could mean "long-term roommates who have become joined financially," or those "living with a sibling or friend to cut living expenses." Those categories would cover the health benefits for unmarried heterosexual or homosexual partners, just as Anderson's plan would, but would affect between 58 and 96 people.

Anderson's plan would cost the city between $17,000 and $63,000, and the City Council's plan would cost several times that — $140,000 to $225,000.

Council member Jill Remington Love, who consulted with city attorneys about offering benefits to partners of city employees around the same time Anderson did, said that the council's plan would allow more people to tap into insurance when they needed it.

"What we would do is similar to the mayor's plan," Love said. "If you were single and you were living with another adult, you could add that person to the plan even if it was a family member. In the mayor's executive order, he specifically excludes family members. We're not taking away from anything the mayor did, we're just broadening it."

Several Salt Lake residents sued Anderson over his benefits plan this fall, saying that Anderson's order contradicted the state's Defense of Marriage Act and Amendment 3, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The city argued Thursday at a court hearing that Anderson's order did not give marriage status to partners, but attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund — an Arizona-based Christian advocacy law group — said his order violated state law. It is not known when 3rd District Court Judge Stephen Roth will rule.

Anderson said he wanted the council to wait for Roth's ruling before pursuing its proposal, but he said he may not be able to veto an ordinance with wide support on the seven-member council. Anderson cannot veto measures that have five or more votes.

"They're painting with a very broad brush now so that it avoids the issue of domestic partnership entirely," Anderson said. "You don't make progress in terms of equality by whatever intimidation factor there might be because of potential backlash from any political group. This is a very important matter of principle as well as the pragmatics."

Frank Mylar, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the council's proposition would sidestep concerns about violating Utah laws that define marriage.

"We represented to the court that if this was opened up and not just trying to favor these particular relations that Rocky Anderson wanted to favor to the exclusion of others, then we would consider that more appropriate legally," Mylar said. "If it's opened up to a number of other individuals, then I think that's more fair and doesn't violate the clear intent of the Utah marriage act."

A council staff member and subcommittee of the council — Love, Eric Jergensen and Dave Buhler — drafted the proposal over the fall after hearing from city attorneys, insurance representatives and the state insurance provider. The council specifically wanted to include gay couples in the health plan, but it also wanted a broader approach to giving people health care.

"It may be a couple — whether it be a gay couple or a heterosexual couple. It may be two sisters, or just two long-term roommates who have been together for years," Love said. "We wanted to be fair in our approach."

The council will discuss the ordinance tonight in its work session; it may hold another work session, schedule a public hearing, or decide to vote on it as early as next week, Love said.

Regardless of the council's action and the differences between the plans, Anderson said that he's pleased his argument with the council is about how to implement the benefits.

"We've come a long way for this to be the debate," Anderson said. "When at the end, no matter which plan is adopted, domestic partners and their children will obtain insurance coverage, that's real progress."


E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com