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When most politicians push same-sex marriage, they talk about equal rights. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee has a different selling point: competitiveness.
The Ocean State’s refusal to allow gay marriage sends a message of intolerance to technology and life-science companies he’d like to attract and puts the state at odds with the younger generation of innovators he wants to retain, Chafee said in an interview. He’s pressing the state Senate to follow the lower chamber, which on Jan. 24 approved a same-sex marriage bill.
“We are in intense competition with Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts,” said Chafee, a 59-year-old Republican- turned-independent, ticking off three nearby states where gays can wed. “We are all in the same economy. We have to have the same welcome mat at our door that our neighbors have.”
Every New England state except Rhode Island allows gay marriage, as do Iowa, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia. Gay-rights advocates in five others, including New Jersey and Delaware, are pushing similar legislation this year.
The notion that state gay marriage laws could be as important as more traditional selling points like housing and public transportation underscores growing levels of acceptance, according to the Washington-based National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
The group points to 13 companies — including EBay Inc., operator of the world’s largest online marketplace; Aetna Inc., the third-biggest U.S. health insurer; and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. — that joined a business coalition aimed at overturning a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on the constitutionality of that law, the Defense of Marriage Act, in the term that ends in June.
“Top talent might not want to work in a state where they are not wanted,” said Justin Nelson, the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “You can see a brain drain.”
The economic argument is “vastly overblown,” said Frank Schubert, the national political director for the National Organization for Marriage, a Washington-based group that fights same-sex marriage laws around the country.
“There is no substantive basis that I can see to suggest that enacting gay marriage is a true economic engine,” Schubert said in an interview.
North Carolina, Schubert said, is a prime example of a technology and innovation-driven economy that has developed without gay nuptials. In May, the voters amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The margin was 61 percent to 39 percent.
In Rhode Island this year, the same-sex marriage measure passed 51 to 19 in the House of Representatives. The chamber is led by Gordon D. Fox, a Democrat and the country’s first openly gay House speaker, according to his office.
The legislation faces longer odds in the 38-member Senate, where 11 lawmakers have co-signed the bill, according to the state General Assembly website. Though the chamber is controlled by Democrats, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed of Newport opposes it. Even so, she has pledged to allow a hearing on the bill.
“The economy is our No. 1 focus,” said Greg Pare, a spokesman for Paiva-Weed. He declined to comment on Chafee’s initiative.
Rhode Island’s economy could use a boost, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States. From the end of the recession in the third quarter of 2009 through the third quarter of 2012, Rhode Island ranked 23rd in economic health among U.S. states, according to BEES. It was outranked by Massachusetts, at No. 11, and New York, which ranked 20th.
Two years ago, the Rhode Island legislature pulled back a gay-marriage bill and instead approved civil unions. The state has granted fewer than 100 of them since then, according to the Health Department. The low participation is due in part to Rhode Island’s proximity to states that allows same-sex marriage, said Ray Sullivan, the campaign director of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, a gay-rights group. In May, Chafee signed an executive order recognizing out-of-state gay marriages.
Chafee, who served as a Republican U.S. senator from 1999 to 2007, said his economic argument isn’t based on direct conversations with executives or chief executive officers.
“It is more of a sense that I have,” the governor said. “Innovative ideas spring out of certain atmospheres.”
The governor’s thinking is in line with research conducted by Richard Florida, author of the 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, who has written that there is a correlation between gay communities and innovation.
“Gay-friendly places, because they are gay-friendly, are open to smart people who might be gay or straight,” Florida said in an interview. “They are generally more open-minded. With restrictive laws, you are hanging out a sign saying ‘geeks and entrepreneurs not welcome here.’”
Lifting the ban could be a direct boon to state’s famous wedding industry, particularly in Newport, where couples come from all over New England to rent robber-baron-era mansions on seaside bluffs to celebrate, according to Nelson of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
New York City saw $259 million in new wedding spending — and $16 million in city revenue — one year after the state allowed gay marriage, according to an economic-impact survey conducted by NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism arm, and the City Clerk’s Office.
Last year in Rhode Island, straight couples and their families spent $300 million on weddings, according to the state’s Economic Development Corp.
“Regardless of what anyone’s personal feelings are, there is a positive economic impact projected” if gay marriage is legalized, said Mark Brodeur, the state director of tourism. “It does spark whole new industries.”
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