Carol Lay

After more than a year of false starts, Portland's Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO) appears to finally be moving toward a city council vote next month.

During his 2004 campaign for city commissioner, Sam Adams pledged to introduce the ordinance, which would require any company that contracts with the city to offer health insurance to their employees' domestic partners—but only if that company currently offers benefits to employees' spouses.

Since most marriage-type benefits are controlled by the state and federal governments, the EBO is one of the few things the city can do to move toward equality for the city's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) population. Portland already has a nondiscrimination policy—in a sense, the ordinance will extend that policy to the companies who contract with the city.

But over the past year, the ordinance has gone through multiple delays while Adams' office held discussions with stakeholders—current contractors and insurance companies. It was put into a holding pattern for much of 2005 while the state legislature debated Senate Bill 1000, the combined anti-discrimination/civil unions legislation. Had SB1000 passed, it could have made the EBO less necessary. Now, seven months after House Speaker Karen Minnis pulled the rug out from under the bill, Adams' office is preparing to take the Equal Benefits Ordinance to council chambers.

On April 12, the EBO will get a "first reading," when members of the public are invited to make comments on the ordinance. If there aren't any amendments made to the EBO, it will go forward for a vote the following week. It's expected to have enough votes to pass.

"All of the commissioners are supportive on the face value [of the ordinance]," Adams staffer Jesse Beason said. The most hesitant commissioner appears to be Dan Saltzman, who last week said that while he supports the idea of the ordinance, he wants to know more about how it will affect small businesses before casting his vote.

One potential hurdle for the ordinance is that many insurance companies don't offer domestic partner coverage, making it difficult for contractors to comply with the EBO.

So far, Beason says, Adams' office has held discussions with the eight major insurance companies that provide health coverage to 95 percent of area small businesses. Five have already agreed to start offering domestic partner coverage, although one insists on implementing a surcharge for the additional coverage. The three remaining holdouts, though, are major: Kaiser, Providence, and Lifewise. Beason says discussions are ongoing, and he expects that at least two of those will sign on by January 2007.

What's still uncertain, however, is what will happen to the companies who contract with the city if their insurance provider won't offer domestic partner benefits.

"We don't want to exclude people the first time around," Beason said. "If they put in a call to Kaiser—using them as an example—to ask why they don't offer domestic partner benefits, that might be enough [to comply with the EBO]. But after a year, if they still don't offer coverage, we might require the contractor to switch providers."

These details—the administrative rules dictating how the EBO will be implemented—will be drafted by a committee later this year that will include representatives from contracting companies and insurance providers.

Also uncertain at this point is the number of domestic partners that aren't currently covered but will be under the EBO. In fact, there aren't even solid numbers on how many of the contractors currently offer spousal benefits—which are the only companies that will be affected.

Before the EBO goes to city council for a vote, Adams is holding a town hall meeting, primarily to hear from contractors and business owners who will be affected. Beason said Adams sent emails to all of the companies that currently contract with the city, and have only received a handful of comments about the ordinance. A few have been supportive, and "less than 10" have been negative—of those, Beason said many were negative for reasons that have less to do with money than anti-gay convictions.

EBO Town Hall, Thurs March 23, 6:30 pm, 1900 SW 4th, Rm. 2500A