A near midnight-hour debate Friday on taxing marijuana turned into a House kerfuffle when majority Democrats interrupted remarks by Republican Rep. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs in order to save 13 bills on the calendar, causing the GOP to storm out of the chamber in protest.
The House was in the midst of hours-long marathon debates on everything from renewable energy standards to regulating the burgeoning recreational marijuana industry when all hell broke loose. The midnight hour meant leadership needed to rise and report, or face losing more than a dozen bills that had been discussed feverishly throughout the day and night.
As Gardner spoke from the well on an amendment to a bill that would refer a tax question to voters on newly legalized recreational cannabis, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, made the call to interrupt Gardner for a move to rise and report.
By making the move, the House would end its business for the day, preserve the work that had been accomplished on the calendar, and then reconvene with a call of the House at 12:05 a.m., thereby starting a new day with fresh legislative actions. But the carefully crafted parliamentary strategy would only wake a sleeping giant within the GOP caucus, as Republicans grew outraged by the tactic.
GOP members were already irked by a move by Democrats earlier in the day to filibuster a bill by one of their own, Senate Bill 252, sponsored by Ferrandino, which would raise the state’s rural renewable energy standard. Leadership acknowledged that they were stalling in order to strike a compromise on the measure.
As Gardner was cut off at the well, Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, the former Speaker of the House, rose from his chair.
“Mark!” he yelled, dashing towards the current House Speaker. “You can’t do that. There are rules!”
The anger spread like a virus. Republicans became infuriated by the interruption. They viewed it as an insulting attack on the decorum and respect of the body.
House Minority Leader Mark Waller of Colorado Springs joined McNulty as they swarmed in on and circled Ferrandino. Members from both parties closed in on the confrontation.
“You’re violating civility,” Waller shouted, as Ferrandino attempted to explain the decision to save the calendar.
But it was too late. There was an imputed motive.
Republicans decided that Democrats had earlier opportunities to make the motion to rise and report, especially before Gardner began speaking. He is notorious for longwinded comments from the well.
And after Democrats filibustered their own legislation, the GOP believed the entire speed of the proceedings was subject to debate. They felt Democrats could have at least moved on to other bills, rather than delay a decision on one of their own.
Waller, McNulty and several other Republicans ran for the press table. Ferrandino was joined at the same table by his own allies, Majority Caucus Whip Beth McCann of Denver, Speaker Pro Tempore Claire Levy of Boulder, and several other Democrats. The spin had begun.
“You guys are in charge, you run the agenda, and you just shut off the voice of the minority, and that’s not right,” implored McNulty.
“We couldn’t go past midnight,” rebutted Ferrandino.
“We never did it to them, they did it to us,” McNulty continued addressing the media, causing an outburst of commotion from Democrats who had huddled around the table.
McNulty became the target of Democrats last year when as House Speaker he blocked debate on same-sex civil unions legislation, despite the bill having the votes to pass, including within his own party. Democrats pushed to oust Republicans in the following election, and ultimately regained control of the House.
“I will tell you right now, what you guys did is completely different than what happened last year,” McNulty addressed his successor.
“Let’s remember that Rep. [Jerry] Sonnenberg, who was at the well, put the House in recess at the exact same time,” argued Ferrandino, referring to the Sterling Republican who was chairing the House last year when he made a motion to put the House into recess, thereby killing civil unions and a total of 30 bills left on the calendar.
“But he did not interrupt a member,” responded McNulty.
“But he did,” continued Ferrandino. “There was a discussion.”
Waller turned to House Speaker and exclaimed, “We’re tired of being bullied. You guys can do this on your own.”
By this point in the revolt, Republicans were organizing. They quickly made their way back to their desks to gather their belongings and leave the chamber in an act of protest. Long-time Capitol observers could not remember another time in the history of the legislature when such an act of rebellion took place.
One by one the Republican caucus exited the House and curved around the hallways of the Capitol to Waller’s office, where they would lock themselves in, refusing to leave.
As 12:05 a.m. approached, Ferrandino began proceedings. There was a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, just like a new legislative day was beginning. Then he made a call of the House. The sergeant at arms in the chamber took notice. Ferrandino ordered the doors locked and that the sergeant at arms round up missing lawmakers, which was the entire Republican caucus.
The sergeant at arms made his way down the curving gold-lined hallways, opening doors to Republican offices, and shouting, “Call of the House! Call of the House!”
When he got to Waller’s office, the Republican members were huddled inside. The sergeant at arms opened the doors to Waller’s office, “Call of the House,” he shouted again.
With smiles on their faces and jokes circling all around, the Republicans made their way out of the minority leader’s office. Some held out their wrists, joking that the sergeant should put handcuffs on them and drag them back to the chamber. Ultimately they returned willingly.
When they were all back in the chamber, Waller requested a moment of personal privilege. “We’ve been pushed to the point where we shouldn’t be pushed any longer…” remarked the minority leader.
“The majority has the votes, but the minority has the voice,” he continued. “The voice is just as important as the votes… And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been feeling some frustration because I feel like we haven’t had the opportunity to exercise that voice in the way we should.”
As the early morning proceeding came to a close, McNulty again walked over to the press table and fell back into a chair, exhausted. When asked how he was feeling, he simply responded, “I’m disappointed.”