SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Opponents of gay marriage submitted more than 345,000 signatures Monday in an effort to get an advisory referendum on Illinois ballots this fall, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich condemned the effort. The governor also announced that he was giving all gay employees under his authority the right to sign up their partners for state health benefits.
Many union-covered state employees already were entitled to benefits for domestic partners.
Two lawmakers said they knew nothing about Blagojevich's plan to extend the benefit and said he should have gotten legislative approval. "He has usurped the General Assembly's authority," said Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and chairman of the State Government Administration Committee.
Organizers of the gay marriage referendum need 283,111 valid signatures to get the question on the statewide ballot in November. They submitted 345,199 – far short of their original target of 500,000.
Still, Protect Marriage Illinois officials say they're confident their signatures will meet the technical requirements.
The advisory referendum would ask voters whether they think the Illinois Constitution should define marriage between a man and a woman as the only valid legal union in Illinois. The results wouldn't change the constitution, but organizers hope it would influence lawmakers to begin the amendment process.
Blagojevich said an amendment is not necessary since a 1996 Illinois law already prohibits same-sex marriage. He opposes the amendment, though he has said in the past that he considers marriage to be between a man and a woman.
"I think it's motivated more by dividing people rather than bringing people together, so I oppose it," Blagojevich said. "If you're asking me if it gets on the ballot, what will I do? I'll vote against it."David E. Smith, project director for Protect Marriage Illinois, said a constitutional amendment is needed because the state law could be overturned by the courts.
"This is an infection that is dangerous to the absolute institution of marriage," Smith said.
If the group succeeds, this would be Illinois' first statewide advisory referendum since 1978, according to the State Board of Elections.
But actually amending the constitution is a much more lengthy process. The most common approach would be for both chambers of the Legislature to vote by three-fifths majority to put an amendment on the ballot, where it would have to be approved by three-fifths of voters.
Critics say the advisory referendum initiative is more about mobilizing conservative voters in the fall election than about changing public policy.
"I'd like them show me one homosexual couple who's destroyed the institution of marriage," said Rick Garcia, political director for the gay rights group Equality Illinois.
Garcia said his organization is waiting to see if the group survives the state's initial review before challenging the petitions.
Meanwhile, Blagojevich issued an administrative order Monday extending domestic partner benefits as of July 1 to all state employees he oversees. That adds 20,000 employees to the 37,000 union-covered workers who already were scheduled to get the benefits, his office said.
Spokesman Justin Dejong said about 100 Blagojevich employees are expected to enroll partners, at a cost to the state of $366,700 annually.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, opposes Blagojevich's action and said the issue should have been decided by lawmakers.
"If it would have come before the Legislature and it passed, then at least it would have been the will of the people," Bost said.
Blagojevich called on other statewide officials and the state's boards and commissions to offer the same benefits. Dejong said around 560 people might enroll if the policy covered all 187,000 state employees and retirees.
"I think within a short period of time, everyone else will also provide it," Garcia said. "I really don't anticipate much backlash. Most Illinoisans are fair and want their neighbors to be treated equitably."
John Hoffman, spokesman for state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, said he didn't know what Topinka, the Republican candidate for governor, would do on the question of domestic partners, largely because she hasn't looked at the financial impact yet.
Associated Press writers Megan Reichgott in Chicago and Christopher Wills in Springfield contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.