Velma Montoya, the University of California regent who withheld a vote Gov. Pete Wilson was counting on to defeat health benefits for partners of gay employees, said Saturday she was sorry for "embarrassing" him and hopes to amend the policy to make it narrower.
But Montoya said in an interview that she is "basically sympathetic" to the argument that the UC system needs to offer the benefits so it does not lose top faculty to Stanford University and other competing schools that provide them.
And she said she would vote in favor of benefits to same-sex couples if the Board of Regents adopts her proposal to exclude retired employees from the health plan. She wants the restriction because she "fails to see the logic how including current retirees helps the University of California remain competitive."
When the regents rejected her idea Friday during a board meeting at UCLA, a clearly conflicted Montoya abstained from the vote, thus allowing the same-sex benefits package to pass 13 to 12.
By not voting, she inadvertently helped the board hand a major political defeat to Wilson, who had made an all-out effort to block the benefits, which he said would lead to costly lawsuits and "devalue the institution of marriage."
"I don't expect the governor would be happy with me," Montoya said of Wilson, who appointed her to the board in 1994. "I didn't intend to bring the spotlight to myself. If, in doing so, I embarrassed the governor, I'm sorry for it. But I feel that the governor appointed me to vote the best way I can."
After some reflection on the action, Montoya said, "I'm happy with the outcome. We will be treating more equitably the people who are covered with this policy. It is better for the university."
Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said the governor was "confused" by Montoya's decision to abstain because she indicated that she would join him to vote against the proposal even if her amendment failed to pass.
Montoya said there were many informal discussions with regents about her views, but she said, "I don't remember making a commitment to anybody."
"She said she would vote no and then reversed herself," Walsh said. "The governor is disappointed with her and some of the other regents who voted with their hearts and not their heads. Sometimes leadership requires us to take actions that may not make us feel good, but are the right actions to take."
Walsh said Wilson remains vehemently opposed to the policy, on moral grounds and because it exposes the university to lawsuits from unmarried heterosexual couples whom the governor expects to try to claim the same benefits.
Montoya, an economist and educational policy consultant, recently moved back to Los Angeles after 6 1/2 years as a member of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission in Washington, D.C.
Former President George Bush appointed her to the commission that arbitrates disputes between business, employees and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The 59-year-old Republican considers herself conservative on fiscal matters and moderate on social ones.
Montoya has departed from Wilson before, during his effort in 1995 to end preferences for race and gender in the UC system. She voted to keep affirmative action as a part of UC admissions standards, but to eliminate such preferences in awarding university contracts.
She was named president of the National Council of Hispanic Women in October and is married to Earl Thompson, a UCLA economics professor.
A former associate business professor at Cal Poly Pomona, Montoya has also taught at UCLA, USC, Pepperdine and Chapman University.
The new policy will allow same-sex couples to obtain medical, dental and vision care.
In his effort to defeat the proposal, Wilson appointed three new regents--two of them on the day of the vote--so they could take their seats on the 26-member board. All three, Ralph Ochoa, Carol Chandler and John Hotchkis, voted with the governor.
But Wilson lost the support of two of his other seven appointees to the board: Peter Preuss and Ward Connerly.
In fact, Connerly, best known for championing Wilson's 1995 campaign to abolish affirmative action in UC admissions, became an outspoken proponent for liberalizing the health policy.
"To not give the same health benefits to gays and lesbians as anybody else is discrimination and is wrong," Connerly said recently. He characterized his break from fellow conservatives on the issue as simply being true to his "libertarian" views.
Connerly and Lt. Gray Davis, who is an ex officio regent because of his position, said they will ask their fellow regents in January to extend the benefits further to include unmarried heterosexual couples.
If they do, Montoya said she will renew her amendment to prevent current retirees from collecting same-sex benefits.
"I'm taking what I consider a businesslike position for the university," said Montoya, who holds a PhD in economics from UCLA. In doing so, she said she wants to limit coverage only to those who will boost the university's ability to recruit and retain top-flight faculty and staff.
Although the regents rejected Montoya's amendment, they agreed Friday to alter health benefits to cover an employee's financially dependent parent or sibling who lives with the employee.
UC officials are not sure how many of the 126,000 UC employees and retirees will apply for the benefits for their relatives or same-sex partners. Their rough estimates place the extra cost at between $1.9 million and $5.6 million a year--on top of the $400 million now spent annually on employee health benefits.
The university plans to open enrollment for the new program in late spring and begin coverage by mid-1998.