Last Friday, any hope for a legislative solution to GLBT inequality came to an unimpressive end. With the state legislators in Salem now AWOL for the next year and a half, the onus is falling on city leaders to do something—anything—to pick up the pieces.
Like, for instance, Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, whose office is preparing to introduce an Equal Benefits Ordinance that would ban city contractors from discriminating against same-sex domestic partners when offering health benefits. Adams began working on the ordinance last spring, shortly after taking office, but put it on hold while civil union rhetoric was still alive at the state house. Now that multiple attempts to establish civil unions have been plowed under, he is readying the ordinance to go forward some time after Labor Day.
For the majority of the city's GLBT population, however, the EBO will be strictly symbolic. Compared to marriage or SB1000, the civil unions/anti-discrimination bill that was smothered by House Speaker Karen Minnis, the EBO is extremely limited in scope. It only applies to companies that have contracts with the city—and among those, it only applies to companies that offer health benefits to spouses.
Adams acknowledged that the beneficiaries of the EBO would be very few and that relationship equality is, by and large, out of the city's jurisdiction. But, he added, "This is something that a local government can do."
The ordinance should have ample support on the council once it is introduced. Adams has been meeting with "stakeholders" (contractors who will be affected by the rule change) for months. There is some trepidation, he says, among employers who mistakenly believe the EBO will require all city-contracted businesses to offer benefits to all employees (the city doesn't—and can't—require any contractor to offer benefits).
His office has also spent the past few months looking at the legal challenges that other cities with EBOs have faced. Thus far, San Francisco and Minneapolis are the two most visible cities requiring equal benefits; both have faced, and ultimately won, lawsuits by city contractors.
Unlike other cities, however, Portland will probably not establish a thorough auditing system to ensure compliance—the funds simply aren't available. Instead, the city would establish a "walk softly, carry a big stick" approach to enforcement, i.e., the checks for compliance would be random and infrequent, but violators would face severe penalties.
The EBO won't change the city, and won't begin to correct the state's institutionalized homophobia. But even if our city leaders' hands are tied, at least they can still flip Karen Minnis the bird.