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ONCE AGAIN, lawmakers have demonstrated the problems of legislating benefits policy without thinking through the consequences.

Case in point: a new Hawaii law crafted to limit the impact of an anticipated state court ruling on the right of gay couples to marry in Hawaii. The law essentially requires employers to extend benefits for a new class of beneficiary, though it will be especially applicable to same-sex domestic partners.

Not only is this another example of state lawmakers encroaching on the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act's pre-emption provisions, but it also is unconscionably broad, creating a duty for employers to provide benefits to nearly anyone an employee designates as a beneficiary.

The fact that the law is so ill-defined makes it one of the more inept pieces of benefits legislation we have seen in a while (and we've seen our share). We think employers have an excellent case that the Hawaii law violates ERISA and expect they will succeed in their suit to bid aloha to the provisions that expand benefits.

We hope lawmakers in Hawaii and elsewhere then take that lesson to heart when attempting future "fixes" of employment issues.

As we reported July 21, the Hawaii law requires employers with 20 or more workers to provide health care benefits to anyone an employee designates as a "reciprocal beneficiary." Under the law, to qualify for such status, a party need only be an adult and legally prohibited from marrying the person with whom they enter into a reciprocal relationship.

To qualify for a reciprocal relationship under the law, the parties must register with the state. However, the law does not require them to be in a financially or emotionally committed relationship, related to each other, live together nor even be residents of Hawaii.

Employers rightly fear that they could end up providing health care benefits for people all over the United States with no tangible relationship to covered employees in Hawaii. The task of administering such benefits alone is mind-numbing, not to mention cost prohibitive.

We regret that in their fight over the broad Hawaii law, employers are likely to be vilified as anti-gay, when their opposition has sound business reasons.

But the blame for this problem lies with state lawmakers who crafted the broad benefit mandate in their panic to nullify a pending state Supreme Court ruling that could give gay couples the right to marry.

Congress on two occasions has exempted Hawaii's universal health care law from ERISA, which pre-empts state laws and rules that relate to employee benefit plans. Congress provided that exemption because it approved of a law that has resulted in more than 90% of Hawaii residents having health care coverage.

However, that exemption does not extend to passing other benefit mandates. Lawmakers' effort to mask the change by drafting it as an amendment to the insurance code is a sham.

We are not opposed to the concept of benefits for domestic partners, same sex or otherwise. But, as we have said so many times before, we think it should be an employer's choice to offer those or any other benefits-and there are compelling reasons to do so. Just like other benefits designed to fit with workers' lifestyles, domestic partner benefits can help an employer better meet the needs of a diverse workforce and remain competitive within its field.

Some gay rights advocates argue that without such government intervention, employers would never offer benefits to same-sex domestic partners. Therefore, they argue, gays are denied a "basic right" to which heterosexual couples are entitled.

Therein lies the heart of the debate: Are employee benefits a basic right? We don't think so.

Rather than push for benefit mandates, which are offensive even to employers that provide domestic partner benefits, gay rights advocates should work with business groups to demonstrate the value of providing these benefits vs. their relatively insignificant cost. Educating and communicating with employers will go a lot further in spreading these benefits than legislative mandates.