Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kentucky Governor bans discrimination for sexual orientation/gender identity

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear on Monday reversed several worker-related decisions made by his Republican predecessor, most notably by reinstating a ban on discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Beshear signed an executive order that bars state officials from making hiring or firing decisions based on sexual preference or gender identity.

"Experience, qualifications, talent and performance are what matter," Beshear said in a statement.

Democratic former Gov. Paul Patton signed an executive order in 2003 aimed at protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender state employees. The policy also bars discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, age and religion.

But Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher removed sexual orientation from the list of specifically protected characteristics as part of an executive order he signed on Diversity Day in April 2006.

Beshear declined to answer questions about the policy change at a news conference shortly before it was announced.

"I'm going to be doing something on that in the very near future," he repeated as his response to two questions about the subject.

The move was applauded by at least two advocacy groups for gay and lesbian rights: the Kentucky Equality Federation, which started an online petition to urge Beshear to take that step, and the Kentucky Fairness Alliance.

The alliance's executive director, Christina Gilgor, said the group was "thrilled" that Kentucky is back among the 27 states that offer such protections specifically to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender state workers.

"This is a major victory for fairness in the Bluegrass State," said state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, a Lexington Democrat and the state's only openly gay lawmaker. "The executive branch is setting an example of how to treat employees fairly."

But David Edmunds, policy analyst for The Family Foundation of Kentucky, said his group is concerned that Beshear could expand other state policies to gay couples, such as providing state health insurance for domestic partners of gay and lesbian state employees.

"It looks like this is the beginning of his pro-homosexual agenda," Edmunds said.

Beshear, however, made no such campaign promises. He did repeatedly vow during last year's governor's race to veto any legislation aimed at barring public universities from offering domestic partnership benefits to their employees. A bill to do that passed the Republican-led state Senate this spring but died in the Democratic-controlled House.

Also Monday, Beshear began his shake-up of state government by formally elevating the Labor Department to a full cabinet and by bringing back an advisory group on state worker issues. The group is aimed at opening communications between unions and the governor's office.

The restoration of the Governor's Employee Advisory Council -- created by Patton and abolished by Fletcher in 2003 -- doesn't give state workers collective bargaining powers because that can be done only legislatively.

State workers "do not have to join (a union). They do not have to pay dues," Beshear said.

But public employees would be able to express workplace concerns to the governor through union representatives who are used to negotiating with executives, said Dave Warrick, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' council that covers Indiana and Kentucky.

"The state employees are hungry for this," Warrick said. "They want a voice at work."

About 10,000 Kentucky state workers signed up to be represented by AFSCME after Patton created the advisory group, but the union didn't get a chance to collect any dues from them before Fletcher eliminated the panel, he said.

Beshear also signed an executive order creating the Cabinet of Labor, to be headed by former state Rep. J.R. Gray. That completes a campaign promise Beshear made last year.

His reorganization of the agency provided some hints as to how Beshear might restructure all of state government in the face of a tight budget.

The governor said he will eliminate three high-paying executive director positions -- two that come with salaries of more than $90,000 and one in the low $80,000 range -- to save money.

The Labor Cabinet will share administrative functions, such as accounting, with its two sister agencies: an energy and environment cabinet and the financial regulation cabinet. All had been part of one giant Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet under Fletcher. If effective, he said, he could replicate that in other areas of state government.

One Kentucky blogger, "Righteous in Kentucky" is personally attacking Kentucky Equality's Pres. (here and here) as well as Kentucky Fairness' Board Chair (here) Jody Cofer.


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