The Spitzer administration has ordered governments across the state to begin offering health insurance and other benefits to the same-sex spouses of government employees if the couples were married in Canada or other jurisdictions that have legalized such marriages.
The new policy, to take effect Tuesday, will affect 378 state agencies and 800 local governments, including school districts, that participate in a state-administered insurance program.
The directive surfaced as Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer formally introduced legislation Friday to legalize gay marriages, as he had promised during last year's campaign. Earlier this week, however, he acknowledged the measure did not have enough support in the Legislature to pass this year.
But gay rights groups called the new insurance mandate for same-sex spouses of state and local government workers an immediate and real benefit that also could encourage more gay couples to travel to Ontario and other Canadian provinces to get married.
"If you do go to Canada, that means more today than it did yesterday," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights lobbying group.
Gay marriage opponents, however, called the Spitzer policy an attack on traditional family values and an unfunded mandate for local governments.
"The governor's initiative to destroy the sanctity of marriage isn't just a social issue that we are dealing with and having differences over," said Michael Long, chairman of the State Conservative Party. "It's an issue that is going to cost the taxpayers of this state a tremendous amount of money and add an increased burden to what is already the state that taxes its citizens more than anyplace else."
The new policy is mandatory for all state and local government agencies that participate in the New York State Health Insurance Program. Local governments piggyback onto the state program to qualify for lower insurance costs as members of a larger group.
The policy does not affect local governments that provide insurance outside the state-offered program. Buffalo, for instance, will not have to participate, city officials said. Erie County officials did not return calls to comment, but the New York State Association of Counties said no Western New York county is enrolled in the state program.
State officials could not say how many Western New York cities, towns, villages and school districts would be affected by the new policy. The state program is especially popular with smaller cities and big and small school districts.
The directive covers health insurance and such benefits as dental, vision, life and long-term care insurance.
"The governor supports marriage equality and believes all New Yorkers should have equal protections under the law," said Christine Anderson, a Spitzer spokeswoman.
No one has an estimate of how many people could qualify under the new policy. The Spitzer administration says additional costs for local governments will be negligible, if anything, a claim critics disputed.
Of the 800 local governments in the program, 92, like the state itself, already offer benefits for domestic partners, according to Erin Barlow, a spokeswoman at the state Civil Service Department. All now will have to expand those benefits to include same-sex married couples. Advocates said the new policy is more sweeping because same-sex couples will have to provide only a marriage license to qualify for benefits.
Joe Tarver, spokesman at the Empire State Pride Agenda, said domestic couples now must meet a slew of requirements, including proof that the couple resides in the same house and that their finances are intermingled.
The policy covers same-sex couples married in Massachusetts, Canada and several other countries, including Spain and Belgium, that have legalized such marriage. Except for Canada, however, all have residency requirements.
Van Capelle called the new policy "encouragement to go to Canada and get married" if one partner works for the state or a covered local government.
Mark LaVigne, spokesman for the New York State Association of Counties, said employee health insurance and other benefits are putting greater burdens on counties. He called the new policy "part of several unfunded mandates that drive up costs for counties and their taxpayers across New York State."
Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, disputed calling the change "an unfunded mandate," imposed by the state without funding to pay for it.
"This is something where the insurance coverage that has been available for heterosexual married couples is now being made available for same-sex married couples," he said. "If the state believes this is something they want to cover, we would certainly abide by that, and I think most school districts would feel that is fair."
Gay rights advocates, who also expect no action this year on gay marriage, said Spitzer's new benefits policy for government workers sends both a symbolic and tangible symbol to gay couples.
"If you think about how many gay and lesbian employees who now have access to the New York State health plan for their partners, this is a very big deal," Van Capelle said.