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The California marriage equality victory means big bucks for the state economy -- and good news for the budget crisis there. But as Jen Christensen finds out, businesses around the country are raking it in too.

When the California supreme court ruled in favor of marriage equality, wedding bells went off in many people's heads. But many others heard the sound of the cash register or the credit card machine as they contemplated the financial windfall in store for the state. As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at a San Francisco event May 20, "I hope that California's economy is booming because everyone is going to come here and get married!"

The financial boost couldn't come at a better time, given the state's growing budget deficit -- $17.2 billion at press time -- which forced Schwarzenegger to declare a fiscal emergency earlier this year. "Every bit of money helps," says Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts who coauthored a 2004 Williams Institute study assessing the economic impact of same-sex marriage in California. Its conclusion? An annual net gain for the state budget of about $30 million, based on consumer spending of at least $85 million. And that number is four years old. "Weddings haven't gotten any cheaper since then," she says.

According to Badgett, Massachusetts saw an estimated injection of $102 million into the economy in the first 18 months after same-sex marriage was legalized -- which doesn't include every cost. "No one tracks the economic boost when your great-aunt in Iowa sends you a wedding gift," she says.

Heterosexual couples this year will spend $28,704 per wedding on average, according to the Wedding Report, a group that tracks the industry. But the real money is in tourism. Unlike Massachusetts, California allows couples from all other states to marry there. The more than 4,000 couples who married at San Francisco's City Hall in 2004 came from 46 different states -- and the Macy's department store there reportedly sold out of wedding rings at the time.

"This should be a significant help for the travel industry, especially in a tough economy," says Adam Healy, cofounder of VibeAgent.com, an online hotel booking site, which issued a press release touting California's gay-friendly hotels right after the court decision was made public.

The financial impact of the ruling is also being felt at least as far away as Asheville, N.C., home to RainbowWeddingNetwork.com, a clearinghouse for same-sex wedding information. Phones there have been ringing off the hook. "It started as soon as the news hit CNN," says co-owner Cindy Sproul, who runs the business with her life partner, Marianne Puechl.

The couple had already scheduled a wedding expo for San Francisco in July but immediately planned three more California expos for that month to showcase vendors such as florists and photographers. "We've never done four expos in two weeks, but we know even with all four we'll sell out of vendor space," Sproul says. Everyone's trying to cash in, even vendors without any experience in the market. "They're kicking themselves for not tapping into this sooner."

Sproul and Puechl aren't contributing to the economic activity only as business owners -- in between their work obligations, they plan to get hitched. "I said to my partner, 'By the way, when we're out in California this summer, we need to get married,' " Sproul says. "She looked at me and said, 'You'll have to ask me in a nicer way than that!' "

The economic gain may prove politically useful too, as the fight to defeat a ballot initiative that would undo the court's decision heats up this summer. Fairness and equality are the most potent defenses of same-sex marriage, Equality California's Jim Carroll says, but "we'll need every argument we can muster, including smart economics."

And considering the more than $11 million that opponents of marriage equality say they need to spend in order to win at the ballot box in November -- and the $10 million to $20 million gay rights activists hope to pay out to prevent that from happening -- sign makers, ad agencies, and the like will get their due too, adding to the economic boon.

"It's sad that we need to waste this money defending against discriminatory forces," Carroll says. But, he adds with a grin, "get us a cape and a shield with a tastefully designed logo. Once again, we're showing that gays can save the world -- or at least our economy."

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