MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Nine years after becoming the first state to permit civil unions, Vermont moved a step toward legalizing gay marriage Friday.

A bill that would allow same-sex unions was introduced in the Legislature, and several hundred gay and lesbian people gathered at the Statehouse to celebrate and lobby lawmakers. A similar bill is expected to be introduced later in the state Senate.

“This really is a great day and a part of moving forward to a time when all Vermont couples will be treated equally under our laws,” said sponsor state Rep. Mark Larson, D-Burlington.

The House legislation has 59 sponsors, none of them Republican, though some GOP lawmakers have said they’ll vote for the bill, according to Larson.

“I’m confident that we will have tri-partisan support for the bill when it comes up,” he said.

Whether it will remains to be seen, given the state’s fiscal crisis, which has prompted voluntary pay cuts, court closings and Gov. Jim Douglas’s proposal to lay off more than 600 state workers.

“We’re still trying to decide whether it’s something that we would do this year,” said House Speaker Shap Smith, who supports the bill.

Supporters don’t expect the debate over gay marriage to be as rancorous as the one over civil unions, which triggered a yearlong battle and the ballot-box defeat of some lawmakers who voted for civil unions.

In nine years, the atmosphere has changed, said Rep. David Zuckerman, a co-sponsor.

“Nothing significant changed for many, many Vermonters nine years ago. There was this great fear. And what we’ve really seen in the last nine years is that fear was unfounded,” said Zuckerman, P-Burlington.

In April, a commission of legislative leaders formed to study whether Vermont should go beyond civil unions and enact gay marriage issued a report supporting it without actually recommending it to lawmakers.

Gov. Jim Douglas, who met privately with supporters of the bill Friday, doesn’t support allowing gay marriage but listened to their concerns, said spokesman Stephen Wark. Douglas thinks state government’s focus now should be on the ailing economy, with budget cuts, falling revenues and rising unemployment, Wark said.

Larson said lawmakers can do both.

“We have work we need to get done as a state. Part of it is this work. This is important work for Vermont families, just like economic issues are important work for Vermont families,” he said. “So we can do it all.”

A couple whose lawsuit led to the creation of civil unions say the bill is a step forward toward equality. Both recently retired, the two women are drawing on social security.

“If something happens to one or the other of us, we cannot, like a heterosexual couple, like a married couple, we cannot draw on each other,” said Lois Farnham, 64, of Burlington.

And outside of Vermont, people don’t necessarily understand what a civil union is, said her partner, Holly Puterbaugh, 62.

“It would be so much easier to say we’re married, and they get it,” she said.

Gay marriage opponent Stephen Cable, of Rutland, spokesman for the Vermont Marriage Advisory Council, said the legislation would not provide any more benefits to same-sex couples on the state level.

It would also create confusion over parenting laws, he said.

Cable’s group sent a letter to legislators last week, saying it would “permanently weaken the connection between marriage, parenting and family structure and likely increase out-of-wedlock births and single parenting.”

Supporters say it’s a civil rights issue.

“We’re here today having introduced the bill to finally hopefully take that last step in this year, in this biennium to true equality,” Zuckerman said.

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