The Governor of New York is expected to introduce a bill to legalise gay marriage in the next few weeks.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer has been a proponent for gay marriage for years, but did not mention the controversial issue in his State of the State speech in January.

Nor did he voice his intentions last week, during a speech which outlined his priorities for the legislative session.

His spokeswoman, Christine Anderson, told the New York Times that Mr Spitzer “made a commitment to advance a programme bill, and he will fulfil that commitment during this legislative session.”

A programme bill refers to legislation which is introduced by the governor rather than the legislature. This session ends on June 21st.

Massachusetts is currently the only state where same-sex marriage is legal.

But civil unions are available for same-sex couples in Vermont, Connecticut, California and New Jersey that entitle couples to all the legal rights of marriage.

When asked why he did not list same-sex marriage among his original legislative priorities, Mr Spitzer said that he was “listing bills that I think we can and should get passed by the Legislature in the next few weeks.

“And so I am focusing now on politics as the art of the possible.

“I think most who are close to the issue would agree with me that it’s not likely to be passed in the next nine and a half weeks.”

It is vital that if Mr Spitzer does propose a bill, he puts his full political weight behind the measure. He will face stiff opposition from Catholic church officials who already condemn his support for embryonic stem cell research.

The New York Assembly has a Democratic majority, but the State Senate has a Republican majority. Neither have ever seen a same-sex marriage bill introduced.

The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has declined to take a stand on the issue, whereas Joseph L. Bruno, the majority leader, has supported legislation to outlaw hate crimes and workplace discrimination, but is against same-sex marriage.

There is division among supporters of gay marriage on the best way to get the bill passed.

State Senator Thomas K. Duane and Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried have been trying for years to get a gay-marriage bill heard on the floor of either assembly. The two Democrats will be trying again this year.

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights group told the New York Times: “I don’t think the governor has dropped the ball on this. At every moment have they brainstormed with us in some very creative ways about how to accomplish this agenda.”

Mr Van Capelle agrees that the measure is unlikely to pass through both chambers of the legislature this year, but he stressed that the support of the governor would give it some much-needed credibility.