A resurrected bill to legalize civil unions in Colorado survived only a matter of hours as the House panel known as the chamber’s “kill committee” lived up to its nickname on the first day of the legislature’s special session this week.
The bill, kept from a vote by the full House a week earlier amid procedural maneuvers, died a second and final time late Monday night on a party-line 5-4 vote in the Republican-dominated House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. The committee stopped the legislation even as the bill’s backers were confident they had as many as 10 GOP votes in the House, enough to pass it despite Republicans holding a 33-32 majority.
The bill would have established civil unions for two adults of any sex, granting them many of the same rights and responsibilities available to married couples under Colorado law. Last year, a nearly identical bill died on a party-line vote in the House Judiciary Committee after passing the Senate with the support of every Democrat and three Republicans.
Opponents said the bill was merely a Trojan horse intended to give the courts a chance to institute gay marriage in Colorado despite a 2006 constitutional amendment adopted by voters that restricts marriage to a man and a woman. Backers said the bill stopped short of creating same-sex marriage but would set in place numerous protections for gay couples.
During the regular session, the civil unions bill passed the Senate and three other House committees with bipartisan support at each step. But when the bill made its way to the House floor on the next-to-last night of the regular session, a Republican-led filibuster and an attempt by the bill’s supporters to force a vote on the measure created what Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, called an insurmountable “impasse” that also doomed a stack of other bills left on the calendar.
Citing what he termed “an overwhelming need” for all sides to discuss and get a chance to vote on the bill, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper at the end of last week ordered the legislature into extra innings, also calling on lawmakers to consider another half dozen proposals that had died in the crossfire.
Blasting what he called an “abuse of power” by House GOP leadership, the bill’s sponsor, Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, decried its demise at the hands of Republicans loyal to McNulty and suggested that voters could install new leadership this fall by handing the House majority to Democrats.
“We saw the process thwarted, and that is disappointing to so many people across Colorado,” Ferrandino told reporters minutes after the committee shot down the civil unions bill. “We wanted an up-or-down vote.”
Earlier that day, at a rally organized by civil unions supporters on the Capitol steps, Ferrandino laid it out more bluntly.
“I want your help to make sure when we come back — I’d say to make sure we have a pro-equality majority in the House, but we already have that, we already have a pro-equality majority in the House, but leadership is stopping them,” he told the several hundred proponents gathered for what would be the third pro-civil unions rally in a little over a week. By the time the next General Assembly is sworn in next year, he continued, “We need your help to make sure the leadership of the House is going to be one that lets the democratic process work and lets civil unions come to a full vote on the floor.”
McNulty accuses Obama operatives of involvement
An unapologetic McNulty slammed Democrats for shining the spotlight on “divisive social issues” at the expense of “issues that matter to Coloradans.”
After gaveling the session to order, he repeated charges that the special session was meant to divert attention from bread-and-butter questions on the minds of voters.
“It’s absolutely clear to me that Gov. Hickenlooper is reading straight from President Obama’s campaign playbook trying to distract Coloradans and trying to distract Americans from their failed economic policies by bringing forward these issues like same-sex marriage,” McNulty said on Monday.
Told that Hickenlooper had laughed incredulously at the suggestion — and later flatly denied — that the Obama campaign had orchestrated the bill’s strategy, McNulty scoffed.
“If I were accused of making a decision because of President Obama’s campaign strategy, I would have laughed nervously too,” McNulty said. “The bottom line is that Colorado operatives were moving in and out of the governor’s office. He can deny it, but that’s what happened. We’ll see it play out. But it is unfortunate that the governor is spending taxpayer dollars on a campaign stunt that comes out of Washington, D.C., pandering to top political donors.”
Both sides tried to pin the blame for the three-day special session — costing an estimated $23,500 a day, taken from funds already set aside for that purpose — on the other.
“This is Gov. Hickenlooper’s special session that he called for the purpose of passing same-sex marriage,” McNulty said. “From our perspective, our side is focused on job creation and economic recovery and doing our part to make sure that we’re doing our marked best to get Coloradans back to work. We ought not, and we should not be spending time on divisive social issues when unemployment remains far too high and far too many Coloradans are out of work.”
Ferrandino had a different take.
“What we saw here and why we’re here is because the games that were played, the fact that democracy was thwarted Tuesday night by the speaker,” he said. “While he blames the governor for causing this special session, he needs to look in the mirror and see who really caused this special session.”
Upon learning that the bill was headed to State Affairs — rather than the Judiciary Committee, which passed it during the regular session when Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, broke ranks with fellow Republicans — Ferrandino sounded resigned that the die had been cast.
“We’re in the speaker’s session and the civil unions bill is going to the speaker’s kill committee,” Ferrandino said. “I think we know who’s pulling the strings today and what’s going to happen, and it’s unfortunate.”
McNulty explained that he piled State Affairs with several bills — including one to set limits on driving while under the influence of marijuana and another to strip obsolete provisions out of the state constitution — in the interest of “working to expedite the process as much as we can,” and then got in another dig at the Democrats. “It’s unfortunate that Gov. Hickenlooper has put us in this position, but we will do our best to move as quickly as possible so we’re not wasting taxpayer dollars.”
By the time the State Affairs committee heard testimony on the bill — following several hours devoted to other proposals — more than 300 witnesses and observers packed the Old Supreme Court Chambers and state troopers stood sentry to keep the crowd in check. Different from previous times the bill had been heard in the same room, opponents — many wearing white T-shirts bearing the slogan LOVING ALL PROTECTING MARRIAGE — appeared to outnumber supporters, though both sides were allotted an hour to testify.
“This is the civil rights agenda for today,” said former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who invoked his gay son, who died two years ago, and told lawmakers they had the chance to “be on the right side of history.”
The general counsel for Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund warned lawmakers against opening the door to lawsuits aimed at undermining traditional marriage.
“Achieving civil unions is a calculated step to achieving court-ordered, same-sex marriage,” said Brian Raum. “Opposing same-sex marriage while supporting civil unions is akin to the Trojans dragging a wooden horse into the middle of Troy.”
Following the often emotional testimony on both sides, Ferrandino summarized his case.
“This is an issue that, in 20 years or less, people will ask, ‘Why was this an issue? Why did people care about this? Why did we deny people equal access under the law?’ Because this is going to happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen and who’s going to stand in the way.”
Family ties doesn’t sway Coram
Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, the committee’s vice chairman and considered a possible swing vote by the bill’s supporters earlier in the session, said that even though he has a gay son, he wasn’t going to let family ties derail a duty to represent his constituents.
“This is a situation that’s very close to my heart, and it’s very difficult because I also represent 75,000 people in southwest Colorado,” Coram said after testimony had concluded. Referring to the same-sex marriage ban passed by voters in 2006, and a measure voters rejected the same year that would have established domestic partnerships, he said the lines were clear.
“What you’re asking me to do here is to invalidate the vote of six years ago. I’m concerned that the gay community is being used as a political pawn. For four years, we had a Democrat governor, a Democrat House and a Democrat Senate. The issue never came up. It only came up when we got a split house. I think that’s wrong.”
Republicans could be facing an invigorated opposition — and an uphill climb when it comes to campaign cash — in their attempts to keep a majority in the House this fall.
Not only did major Democratic funder and gay-rights activist Tim Gill attend Monday’s committee hearing — the first time the multi-millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist has appeared in public at the Capitol in nearly a decade, some lobbyists noted — but a raft of prominent GOP benefactors stood front-and-center at the pro-civil unions rally.
Among the business leaders usually counted as reliable Republican backers were corporate giant and philanthropist Daniel Richie, developers Greg Stevinson, Pat Hamill and Rick Sapkin, along with corporate lobbyist Maria Garcia-Berry.
After the committee vote, McNulty brushed back suggestions that concerns about the fall election were guiding his actions during the special session.
“I understand there are significant donors on the Democratic side that are interested in this issue, that are motivated on this issue,” he said. “I appreciate the fact they have lots of money, and I appreciate the fact they’re going to play heavily in Colorado’s elections over the upcoming months because they believe Colorado should be a same-sex marriage state.”
He declined to speculate on whether the bill’s fate might have an impact on the fall campaign.
“Even though I understand that wealthy, well-heeled Democratic donors will give more money to the Democrat cause, that shouldn’t have an effect on anything that happens at the state Cap-itol,” he said. “We’re going to worry about the elections when we get done, but we’re worried about the work that we have in front of us right now, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on.”
Nicolais: ‘Blame is a political parlor game’
Prominent Republican attorney Mario Nicolais, a founder of Coloradans for Freedom, a GOP group formed to promote civil unions, said he wasn’t interested in blaming McNulty but would continue to push for sympathetic Republican legislators.
“You can kill a bill but you can’t kill an idea,” he said. “Blame is a political parlor game, and it’s for people who are not ready or willing to move on. Coloradans for Freedom is ready to move on.”
He said the group intended to help elect Republican majorities in the House and Senate and added that “included in those Republican majorities are lots of Republicans civil unions supporters. Those are our new goals going forward, and it’s time to move on.”
The group plans to stay out of Republican primaries this year, including one that pits a prominent civil unions supporter, Sen. Jean White, R-Hayden, against challenger, Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, who has voted against the bill multiple times in House committees.
“We’re not going to be picking between Republicans at any point,” Nicolais said. “What you’ll see us doing is going to some of the Republicans who stuck their neck out, or Republican candidates who chose to endorse civil unions and making sure we help them win those seats as best we can. We all appreciate what Sen. White has done, and I think we’re going to have to talk about where we go from there. But our primary concern is to elect Republican majorities in the House and in the Sen-ate, and that’s a November election.”
Some Republican lawmakers were divided over how McNulty and others in the House GOP leadership had handled the bill.
Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, criticized what she called a “failure of leadership,” including actions taken by her primary opponent, Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who controlled the bill calendar on the night the House came to a standstill during its regular session.
“I am disappointed that we had to have a special session in the first place,” Looper said after the civil unions bill died in committee on Monday. “I think it’s a complete lack of leadership that the bill made it through three committees and then on the last day — and I oppose civil unions — but if the leadership was intent on killing the bill in the first place, it should have gone to State Affairs weeks ago instead of dragging it out like this. I agree with the decision to kill the bill, but I am disappointed in the process.”
Term-limited Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, a state Senate candidate in a predominantly Republican district, lit into McNulty in an email he blasted to constituents on Monday.
Noting that he was a firm opponent of the civil unions bill, he nonetheless took leadership to task for how it had orchestrated the bill’s defeat.
“I do not support abrogating the House Rules to pass or defeat any bill,” Balmer wrote. “The House Rules have their underpinnings in our State Constitution. I have served under three Speakers, and I’ve never seen the rules changed to advantage or disadvantage any specific bill. I never saw [former Democratic] Speaker [Andrew] Roma-noff bend the rules, so we must follow the Rules now. Bills should proceed to their normal committees of reference.”
The chairman of the House committee that killed the bill said he was satisfied things were handled fairly.
Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, who is term-limited after this session, praised McNulty for sending the civil unions bill his way and declared that the process worked.
“I think our committee conducted itself the way it was designed to conduct itself,” he said after the vote. “We gave the bill a hearing, there was adequate time for testimony on both sides, it was held with dignity and decorum, and we gave the best that we could under the circumstances.”
As to why the bill went to State Affairs, rather than the Judiciary Committee, where it was heard previously, Kerr said the unusual demands of a special session necessitated keeping the number of committees hearing legislation to a minimum.
“We’ve only got a couple of committees right now,” he said, adding, “We work with the very best we could with the few committees of reference we have convened.”
Still, he agreed with the bill’s backers that Monday’s vote was likely just a temporary setback.
“Like I told Minority Leader Ferrandino, he’s got another chance to take a shot at this,” Kerr said. “I’m termed out — I’m gone, I don’t care, that’s the way life is. But he does, he has another chance at it. If they can build a compelling case, they can get it passed.”