Wisconsin's largest business lobby is holding firm in its refusal to take a position on a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions, even as other business groups are declaring their opposition.
"It's not an economic issue. It's a social issue," says Jim Pugh, spokesman for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
Others disagree. This week, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce announced it is officially opposing the amendment, which voters will decide in a Nov. 7 referendum.
"We do believe it's a business issue," says Chamber president Jennifer Alexander, who fears the amendment's discriminatory import will make it harder for businesses to recruit and retain top employees. "The state of Wisconsin is going to be faced with a demographic labor shortage. If this [amendment] were to pass, those problems will become even more acute. You don't have to connect many dots to see the connection with economic development."
The dot-connecting goes like this: Highly prized "Creative Class" workers and businesses that employ them want to live and work in diverse, accepting places. Passing the gay marriage ban would scare those workers and companies away. On the flipside, being the first state to defeat a constitutional gay marriage ban would send the message that Wisconsin is open for business.
Pugh paints the proposed ban as irrelevant: "Our members are experiencing a labor shortage now. Gay marriage is illegal now. Nothing's going to change." He says WMC has other priorities. "If Wisconsin would lower its tax burden, ease its regulatory climate and crack down on frivolous lawsuits, businesses would expand, and that would send the right message."
But the Chamber is hardly alone in seeking a "no" vote on the amendment. The Wisconsin Federation of Business and Professional Women and Downtown Madison Inc. have both come out against it. And Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton all oppose the ban on economic grounds.
"It would enshrine discrimination in our constitution and send exactly the wrong message to potential employers and employees alike," says Cieslewicz, who urged Alexander to oppose the ban in a recent private meeting. Alexander maintains the Chamber board came to its unanimous decision on its own.
If the amendment passes, the ability of government and even private employers to offer domestic partner benefits could be subject to legal challenge. "The language [in the amendment] that goes beyond same-sex marriage to cover any similar relationships really calls into question domestic partner benefits everywhere," says Cieslewicz.
Proponents of the ban also offer an economic argument. Julaine Appling, president of Vote Yes for Marriage, cites a 1991 Journal of Human Resources study suggesting that men who are married to women are better employees and make more money than single men. What she sees as a move to redefine marriage would erode that "marriage premium" and hurt the economy.
Cieslewicz isn't buying it. "So this is going to make more people get married?" he asks. "That's the most ludicrous argument I've heard in my four years as mayor. That's just silly and stupid."
Adds Mike Tate of Fair Wisconsin, a group working to defeat the ban, "If that's their economic argument, I'm pretty pleased."
Tate is encouraged that more business groups are mostly aligning themselves against the ban, as he predicted they would (see "Business vs. the Right," 5/26/06). He thinks this will be an important consideration for voters.
"People vote on pocketbook issues," he says. "People look to business leaders to say this is good for Wisconsin, this is bad for Wisconsin. Business leaders are saying this ban is bad for Wisconsin. I don't think the Madison chamber will be the last chamber to oppose this."