TAMPA — Kevin Beckner, Hillsborough County's first openly gay commissioner, said he didn't run for office to promote a gay agenda.
But a little more than two months after winning election, he is asking the county to study extending health benefits to domestic partners of county employees.
Beckner, attending Tuesday's presidential inauguration with his partner, said the timing was not intentional. Hillsborough County just happens to be preparing bid requests for a new employee health plan.
"This has nothing to do with the timing of the election, but the timing of the health care benefits coming up for bid," Beckner said.
He plans to raise the topic at Thursday's commission meeting.
The health plan contract, which is for six years, would start in October, so now is the time to bring up the topic, Beckner said. Further, he said it isn't a gay issue, but a health care concern.
Benefits would be extended to heterosexual couples who are not married and, by sheer numbers, most likely to benefit. He said it will keep people from using the emergency room for medical treatment, a cost that ultimately trickles to taxpayers.
But some critics of Beckner during his commission run are now saying I told you so.
David Caton, executive director of the Florida Family Association, delivered a last-minute recorded phone call to voters last year claiming Beckner was running for office to promote a gay agenda. He expressed vindication Tuesday while encouraging visitors to his group's Web site to e-mail Beckner with a form note emphasizing the cost to taxpayers.
"My robo-call was right," Caton said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Beckner is trying to formalize same-sex relationships in the code of this county.
"Talk about violating his campaign theme that he is 'fiscal conservative,' " said Caton, who has said he plans to seek a county charter amendment in 2010 to ban same-sex domestic partnership benefits.
Commissioners have received dozens of e-mails in opposition, many emphasizing the cost, particularly in a down economy. Others mentioned the November passage of Amendment 2, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, as a measure of public sentiment.
A decided minority voiced support for domestic partnership benefits.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe seized the fiscal theme in saying why he won't support even studying the idea.
"This is the worst economic crisis since the second World War," Sharpe said. "The last thing the public wants to hear is we're looking for ways to expand benefits."
In addition to keeping people out of emergency rooms, Beckner said domestic partnership benefits could help the local economy. He said many progressive companies that offer the sort of high-wage jobs Hillsborough County covets would look more favorably at opening shop here.
In any event, he said, he is only asking to study the idea. "It's about doing our due diligence and understanding the costs to the county," Beckner said.
Despite how he is framing the issue, gay rights groups are watching closely along with those that oppose them.
"It is a gay issue, but it goes beyond that as well," said Lorna Bracewell, director of ImpACT—Florida, formed in November in response to passage of Amendment 2. "I think the issue is one of basic fairness. To call it a part of the gay agenda is to me the worst kind of hate mongering."
Under Mayor Pam Iorio, the city of Tampa has extended benefits to domestic partners of its employees. Hillsborough commissioners reacted with a 4-3 vote in April 2004 to prohibit the county staff from even looking at the idea.
Commissioner Jim Norman said he saw it as leading to gay marriage, adding he would not let Hillsborough become "San Francisco east." Norman and Chairman Ken Hagan, the only two commissioners remaining from that vote, did not return phone calls for comment.
Beckner will first seek Thursday to rescind the 2004 vote.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.