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Analysis: Napolitano move on domestic partners rankles GOP lawmakers

PHOENIX – Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano’s decision to extend benefits to unmarried domestic partners of state employees isn’t sitting well with conservative Republican lawmakers, but there’s not much they can do about it.

Napolitano’s move is just the latest example of the governor flexing her executive-branch muscle to make a policy decision opposed by conservatives.

She did it this time by having her Department of Administration issue tentative rules expanding the state employee and retiree benefits package to cover domestic partners, whether of the same or opposite gender.

The department said the change would help with employee recruitment and retention and added costs would be offset by unrelated savings in other aspects of the benefits program.

Napolitano herself said she supported the change as a matter of fairness for workers. “All it does is confirm that everybody’s entitled to the same benefits for the same work,” she said.

The inclusion of domestic partners was long sought by gay-rights advocates, but social conservatives denounced the move as undermining marriage.

The rule change was quietly filed Nov. 7 and only recently publicly reported. No action by the Republican-led Legislature is needed and a Napolitano-appointed panel is expected to act on the proposed change in early 2008.

Legislative critics said they didn’t know what recourse, if any, they have.

They could try to move legislation to block the new benefits, said House Government Committee Chairman Kirk Adams, R-Mesa. But it’s not clear it could get enough votes to pass and Napolitano could easily veto it.

That’s more than just a possibility.

Napolitano set career and legislative records for vetoes by an Arizona governor in 2006 by killing bills passed by the Legislature on topics ranging from abortion and private school vouchers to border security and eminent domain.

Adams and other GOP lawmakers said the benefits change disregards the state’s worsening budget situation and the way it’s being done is disrespectful of the Legislature’s policy-setting role.

“They sort of went the back door, and I don’t think that’s an appropriate approach,” Adams said. “It is a controversial issue that many people have strongly held opinions on.”

GOP lawmakers have grumbled about Napolitano’s executive orders before. She’s used them to launch a prescription drug program and ban discrimination in state hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. And some eyebrows lifted when Napolitano’s environmental regulators changed auto emission limits and rules governing car pool lane use.

Adams’ Senate counterpart, Republican Sen. Jack Harper of Litchfield Park, said he doubted there’d be enough support among lawmakers to challenge the latest move in court as an affront to the Legislature’s constitutional appropriations power.

But another critic said the new benefits represent a “gauntlet thrown down by the governor’s administration” with broad implications for Napolitano’s relations with lawmakers.

“The Legislature’s specific response isn’t the only thing in play here. There’s the budget and everything else,” said Peter Gentala, Center for Arizona Policy general counsel. “Policy and legal options will definitely be on the table.”

In an acknowledgment that the move ruffled feathers among fellow lawmakers, an openly gay legislator who’d urged Napolitano and her Republican predecessor to make the change said he’s now trying to calm the waters.

“I’m going to sit down with many of my colleagues and try to explain this because it seems like they’re going after the governor,” said Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix.

Despite the potential backlash from social conservatives, the benefits decision may not have much of a political downside for Napolitano, who was re-elected to a second term by nearly a 2-to-1 margin last year.

Napolitano is barred by term limits from running again in 2010, but she is regarded as a likely U.S. Senate candidate or possible Cabinet appointee in a Democratic presidential administration.

Most Arizonans oppose same-sex marriage but a slightly larger majority favors domestic partner benefits, said Bruce Merrill, a veteran Arizona political observer.

“So for the governor or Democrats in general, very little risk,” said Merrill, an Arizona State University professor who produces polls for KAET-TV.

Arizona voters last year narrowly rejected a ballot measure called Proposition 107 that would have amended the Arizona Constitution to ban same-sex marriage and prohibit state or local governments from recognizing marriage-like relationships.

The second prohibition would have erased domestic-partner benefits now provided by a handful of Arizona cities and barred the new benefits proposed by Napolitano’s administration.

Napolitano denied the measure’s defeat was a factor in her support for the change.

Cheuvront, however, said once Proposition 107 was rejected, “the governor’s office was more willing to look at it closer.”

Paul Davenport covers Arizona government for The Associated Press

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