By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 12, 2008) - A joint legislative committee adopted emergency regulations Thursday defining domestic partnerships, alarming some activists and delegates that the decision could eventually threaten traditional definitions of marriage in the state.
The regulations, drawn up by the Maryland Insurance Administration, require a straight or gay couple to be in a "committed relationship of mutual interdependence" and living together for at least six consecutive months. They must have at least three sources of proof, which can include documents such as a joint bank account or a common address listed on a state identification.
The emergency regulations, approved 12-4, became effective after the hearing and are in place for 180 days or until final rules are adopted by the committee. The public comment period is open until Jan. 22.
The definition of domestic partnerships was drafted to address the Family Coverage Expansion Act passed at the end of last year's regular legislative session.
The law requires health insurance carriers doing business in Maryland to offer coverage for domestic partners at the request of individual employers. It became effective Jan. 1 but didn't include a legal standard for a domestic partnership, leaving insurers without criteria.
Maryland Insurance Administration Commissioner Ralph Tyler repeatedly emphasized the law does not mandate that employers extend coverage for domestic partners.
"We don't want unreasonable barriers to coverage to be created," Tyler said, adding that the legislation itself specifically requires his agency to draft regulations. To not do so would be "an abdication of responsibility" that would draw harsh criticism, he said.
But tensions still ran high.
Del. Michael Smigiel Sr., R-Upper Shore, who voted against the regulations, described the committee's vote as a "breakdown of the process" that denies the entire legislature a chance to weigh in.
"This will have a lasting effect," he said. "The state did nothing to support traditional marriage, instead allowing short-term relationships that are easier to get out of."
The bill originally specified criteria for domestic partners, but that language was stricken from the final version that was passed. Even though the legislation called for the Insurance Administration to draw up a definition, opponents argued the task should have been decided by the full legislature.
"If the legislature chose to be silent on the legal definition of domestic partnerships, surely the Insurance Administration should not assume that task," said, Mary Ellen Russell, deputy director of Education and Family Life for the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Supporters chose not to testify at the hearing.
Sen. Richard Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery County, who voted to adopt the regulations, expressed surprise that there was even any controversy at all.
"I wish we could claim some sort of victory," he said. "But it's hard to believe that there was a fight over this."