Will civil union law bring gays and dollars to Delaware?

After nearly three hours of arguments on the House floor, and years of emotional debate outside its walls, it was finally time for a roll call on Delaware’s civil union bill.

Steve Elkins of Rehoboth Beach was in Legislative Hall on that historic April day, keeping track of the vote as each legislator’s name was called.

“The vote came down, I had a tally sheet, I was checking people off,” Elkins said. “And when we got to 26 to 15, I broke down in tears. It was amazing.”

For Elkins, and others involved in committed same-sex relationships, it was a life-changing moment.

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Under the measure, couples who enter into a civil union would enjoy the same rights, protections and obligations that exist for married spouses, such as hospital visitation rights, property and last will and testament transfers, the ability to live together in nursing homes, joint adoption, and other legal issues.

Gov. Jack Markell is scheduled to sign the bill into law Wednesday in Wilmington, which would make Delaware the eighth state to allow same-sex civil unions. When the law takes effect January 1, Delaware will join New Jersey as the only Mid-Atlantic states to fully recognize same-sex relationships.

Elkins says there’s something else that will occur beginning with the New Year — a barrage of civil union ceremonies — which will be an economic shot in the arm for communities like Rehoboth Beach.

“That’s going to make an immediate impact because florists, photographers, caterers and restaurants are all ready to accommodate those people and to make their civil unions really be a meaningful experience, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

And Elkins is ready to accommodate them as well. The executive director of CAMP Rehoboth (Create a More Positive Rehoboth), is not shy about showing off the event space available in his own facility. But he’ll tell you CAMP Rehoboth is much more than just a community center. It was formed in 1991, Elkins says, to help ease tension between the gay and straight communities.

Estimates today put the gay and lesbian population of Rehoboth Beach at 20 to 25 percent. With possibly more on the way as either visitors or residents, Elkins says area tourism leaders and merchants are already teaming up to take advantage of what could be a golden opportunity.

“We’re really stepping up with social marketing,” he said. “So from Facebook, Constant Contact, those types of things, we’re reaching out to online versions of the national media, letting people know that if you want to come to Rehoboth, we’re going to find you realtors to work with, we’re going to find you churches that are welcoming.”

Other supporters believe the new law will benefit not just Rehoboth Beach, but the entire state, by inspiring more gay and lesbian couples to move to Delaware. Lisa Goodman, a Wilmington attorney and president of Equality Delaware, says the law will spark a long-term economic boost as these new residents buy homes, eat in restaurants and pay taxes.

She says she knows of several couples in neighboring states who are already looking for houses in Delaware. Goodman says there’s no doubt in her mind that couples who live nearby in Pennsylvania or Maryland, especially those who already work in Delaware, will look to relocate.

Goodman, who has four children with her same-sex partner, says, “If you had a choice of living in a state that recognized your relationship, valued you and treated you the same as all its other citizens, would you choose to live in that state or in a next-door state that didn’t? These are folks who have good jobs in Wilmington or elsewhere in the state who say ‘my family’s more important than where we live, we’re coming to Delaware.'”

So, if that’s the case, should Delaware communities openly market themselves as gay friendly? The mayor of Wilmington says it’s something the city already does.

“We’ve actually sent to groups, organizations that exist, information about Wilmington and about the availability of housing and projects and programs and things like that,” said Mayor James Baker who supports the law. “So it’s not like it’s hard work, it’s just communication and saying that we’re accepting of people, regardless.”

At the state level, Gov. Markell says there could be some tangible economic benefits as a result of the new law, but adds he supports civil unions in Delaware because it’s “the right thing to do for individuals and for the state.” As to whether state officials would specifically target the gay and lesbian community, Markell says they would actively recruit businesses of all kinds.

But not everyone agrees that the civil union law will generate revenue in Delaware. State Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View), who voted against the bill, believes the opposite, that the state, its taxpayers and businesses simply can’t afford it.

Hocker, the owner of several small businesses in Sussex County, says the civil union law will force businesses like his to add dependents to health insurance plans.

“I’m one of the few employers left that still pay a hundred percent of my employee’s health care coverage,” he said. “I do have some gay workers working for me. If I have any additional costs, I am going to have to change my benefit package to my entire group.

“So nobody really knows what that cost is. And then what is going to be the cost to the state about businesses having to pick that up?”

But folks like Steve Elkins say whether the civil union law turns out to be an economic boost or burden for the state of Delaware is irrelevant. What matters, he says, is that if people do relocate to Delaware that they are welcomed.

“We’ll be there as a community to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to help you as my neighbor, as my friend. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, black or white, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Jew. I’m going to help you because you’re my neighbor.’”

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