When more than 100 same-sex couples lined up outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on the morning of March 3, 2010, to apply for marriage licenses on the first day of implementation of the city’s Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment of 2009, celebration filled the air – and D.C. small business Hello Cupcake distributed a box of cupcakes to each couple.
Emblematic of efforts by wedding-related businesses to launch affinity marketing efforts and sales solicitations targeting this new market at the initiation of marriage equality in the nation’s capital, the local confectionery had coordinated the promotional giveaway with gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who helped distribute the complimentary treats that morning outside the courthouse.
Catania had been the lead sponsor of the long awaited, strategically delayed and carefully constructed legislation, co-sponsored and first approved in one of two required votes by 10 of his 12 Council colleagues two years ago this week.
Council testimony and media reports during consideration of the modern marriage bill touted extraordinary local economic benefits to come once gay and lesbian couples were permitted to marry in Washington.
Unfortunately, although no commercial benefit was — or should be — required to justify the expansion of the civil right to marry, those projections have proven overstated and the level of anticipated revenue for local businesses has not materialized.
The shortfall is due to both unrealistic economic forecasting by some marriage equality advocates and a notably lower number of same-sex marriages performed in the District than projected.
The most widely ballyhooed and referenced analysis was provided by the Williams Institute, a privately financed think tank focusing on sexual orientation law and public policy at the UCLA School of Law that has released similar reports for a number of states and is the national media go-to source on the subject. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi also issued a report with similar findings.
The group’s report indicated that extending marriage to same-sex couples would boost the District’s economy by more than $52.2 million over three years and generate increases in local government tax and fee revenues by $5.4 million and create approximately 700 new jobs.
The Institute’s financial projections were based on 14,432 same-sex couples marrying in D.C. in the first three years – including 1,882 resident couples and 12,550 couples from surrounding jurisdictions and the rest of the country. District CFO Gandhi had suggested as many as 21,000 lesbian and gay couples might marry in the city.
During the first year of the new law, a reported 6,600 licenses for all couples were issued. Although D.C. does not distinguish between same-sex and heterosexual marriages, only 3,100 licenses were issued during the prior year and in recent history the number of marriage licenses varied by only 100 or less from year to year. Consequently, the introduction of same-sex marriage in D.C. appears to have more than doubled the number of marriage licenses issued during the first year of the expanded law.
However, the resulting estimated number of same-sex couples married in D.C. during the initial 12 months represents only approximately 60 percent of the Institute’s projected total of nearly 5,500 in the first year.
Based on a requested special statistical summary provided this week by the Governmental and Public Relations office of D.C. Courts for the subsequent partial year current period, the number of same-sex marriages will likely decline to slightly more than 2,500 during the second year. As the “pent-up demand” of local and regional gay and lesbian couples desiring to marry is fulfilled, a more significant decline is anticipated for the third year.
As a result, the total number of same-sex couples expected to marry during the first three years of the law will likely represent little more than half the number predicted.
The projections for revenue to be accrued by both local businesses and the District government are also overstated, based on an estimated average wedding expenditure for D.C. gay and lesbian resident couples of nearly $10,000, with non-resident couples spending less. Although the study assumed that local same-sex couples would spend only 25 percent of the recession-adjusted $38,180 average spent by D.C. opposite-sex couples, this cost figure is not common practice or a realistic financial assessment of many same-sex weddings.
The projected creation of 700 new local jobs is the more unsupportable advance claim, resulting from political theoreticians crunching abstract, and oversized, numbers in a way foreign to experienced common-sense business owners. By comparison, each of the six large Walmart stores to soon open in the District will each employ only 300 workers.
The successful long-term political strategy undertaken by community leaders to ensure that D.C. would join the small number of states adopting marriage equality to date benefits everyone in both direct and indirect ways and is a contemporary cultural asset for the city, its business environment and employee talent attractiveness. Only the anticipated number of resulting marriages and the promise of significant direct revenues benefiting the local business community and the District’s tax coffers have proven to be the sole aspects of this historic achievement divorced from reality.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.