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City to defray tax on workers' insurance

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- When the city of Cambridge issues paychecks to its public employees, nearly two dozen workers find a federal tax on their income that their colleagues don't have to pay.

Like many people, these 22 school and city workers chose to put their spouses on their employer-provided health insurance. Because they're in a same-sex relationship, the value of that health coverage is considered taxable income by the federal government.

But starting this month, Cambridge will become the first municipality in the country, it is believed, to pay its public employees a stipend in an attempt to defray the cost of the federal tax on health benefits for their same-sex spouses. The city employees hit by the extra tax pay an additional $1,500 to $3,000 in taxes a year and officials estimate the stipends would cost the city an additional $33,000.

"This is about equality," said Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge city councilor. "This is a city that models what equality really means."

Of the thousands of legally married gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts, none can receive the federal benefits offered to heterosexual married couples because the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. Benefits include Social Security survivors' benefits, immigration rights, family leave and the ability to file joint tax returns.

The council last month approved the measure that would provide quarterly stipends to any city or school employee who puts a same-sex spouse on their health insurance.

"This is ultimately a fairness issue. Two people who do the exact same job should be paid exactly the same for what they are doing at work," said Leland Cheung, a Cambridge city councilor who pushed for a proposal with fellow councilor E. Denise Simmons, who is openly gay.