St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is taking a responsible and appropriate step by extending same-sex health benefits to the city's rank-and-file police officers in a union contract ratified Friday. The cost to the city will be minimal, and beyond the basic fairness of it, the move will pay dividends by making the department more competitive when seeking recruits. Foster said during his campaign that he would approve same-sex benefits for city employees if the city could afford it, and now he's making good on that commitment. As an act of good-government leadership, Foster is also following through on his promise to distinguish between his personal religious views and sound public policy.
St. Petersburg is actually playing catch-up on extending health benefits to same-sex partners. In 2004, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio granted domestic partner benefits to all employees of the city by executive order, including for members of the Tampa Police Department. In 2007, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats established same-sex benefits for his employees. But former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker had a blind spot when it came equal rights for gays and lesbians, and the effort to equalize employee benefits regardless of sexual orientation stalled.
For Foster, providing same-sex health benefits to city's rank-and-file police officers appears to be a first step. Similar benefits are likely to be extended to other city workers as union contracts come up for renewal. Although there is no plan to extend same-sex health benefits to nonunion city staff in the short term, the mayor says he will seek to eventually equalize benefits. "There needs to be consistency and equity because the last thing I want to do is compel someone to join a union because they feel there is a disparity," Foster half-joked.
St. Petersburg police Lt. Markus Hughes is an example of the human consequences of the current exclusionary policy. His same-sex partner of eight years, Alexander Baker, is without health insurance since losing his full-time job. Hughes worries about the medical costs if his partner were in a car crash or gets sick — a worry that married heterosexual officers don't have. "We put our lives on the line just like everybody else," Hughes says. Very true, and they deserve to be treated just the same on the job.