The Governor of the US state of Wisconsin has announced plans to introduce domestic partnerships.

Jim Doyle said that the issue was not about “gay or straight.”

“It is time to make sure our state takes some basic steps toward fairness and decency,” he said in his budget address to the state legislature earlier this week.

“First, we can make sure that domestic partners who work for the state have access to benefits.

“We can also make sure that a committed couple has visitation rights at a hospital, and the right to take the appropriate leave if one has a serious illness.

“This isn’t an issue of being gay or straight – we are not judging people’s lives here. But I don’t want the state to stand in the way of someone being able to care for their long-term partner.

“And I don’t want the state to be less competitive at our university and other institutions because we don’t treat people fairly.”

Researchers estimate that up to 5,000 gay and lesbian couples would register. The US Census Bureau estimates that 14,000 same-sex couples live in Wisconsin.

In November 2006 voters in the state approved a ban on gay marriage.

Wisconsin Family Action, a group that claims to uphold “Judeo-Christian principles,” said they will challenge the Governor.

“Wisconsin citizens passed Wisconsin’s marriage protection amendment in November 2006, by a 59%-41% margin,” said WFA president Julaine Appling.

“The language of the amendment makes clear that marriage in Wisconsin is between one man and one woman and that marriage by another name is not legal. Even if the domestic partner provision in the budget passes constitutional muster, it is not the right step for Wisconsin to take, particularly in a time of financial crisis.

“Throughout the bill, the term ‘domestic partner’ is used in the same context as ‘spouse.’

“It appears that the intent is to approximate marriage, to test what ‘identical to or substantially similar to’ means in the constitutional amendment.

“The Governor has also defined what a domestic partnership is, who qualifies, how people enter such a legal relationship, and how this relationship is dissolved. The counties would register the people and then report the relationship status to the state.”

LGBT advocacy group Fair Wisconsin said a poll conducted last month found that three-quarters of likely Wisconsin voters support some form of legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples.

“People in Wisconsin are fair and decent and are ready to provide critical protections to committed couples,” said Fair Wisconsin Legislative Director Katie Belanger.

“We shouldn’t stand in the way of someone being able to care for their long-term partner.”

To be eligible for a domestic partnership, two individuals must be of the same sex, both be at least 18 years old, share a common residence, not be nearer of kin than second cousins, and neither party can be married or in another domestic partnership with anyone else.

Domestic partnerships will be administered at the county level, and couples must sign a legal declaration of their commitment.

Gay and lesbian couples can get married in two US states. 29 states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.