As Special Session Looms, Legislators Prepare for Civil Unions 2.0

May 11, 2012
wallyg / Foter

DENVER – In the wake of a storm over the failure to debate the civil unions bill on the House floor Tuesday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced today that a Special Legislative Session will begin Monday to ensure a fair hearing of that measure and bills regarding public safety, economic recovery and water.

“We are going to make sure that it is a fair and open debate on the floor of the House and the Senate,” said Hickenlooper. “And allow people to vote for it.”

Democrats blamed House Speaker Frank McNulty for blocking the second reading of Senate Bill 2 that would legalize civil unions. Republicans criticized Senate President Brandon Shaffer and Sen. Pat Steadman, the bill’s sponsor, for failing to send the measure to the House until the final days of the legislative session that ended May 9.

“I am not going to criticize anybody,” said Hickenlooper.

But House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, a co-sponsor of SB 2, spun the governor’s decision to convene a special session as a slam on the Republican House leadership.

“Governor Hickenlooper has determined that the House GOP’s failure of leadership is bad for Colorado,” asserted Ferrandino in a written statement.

“Therefore, he just called a Special Session of the legislature to find solutions for critical issues that were left unresolved,” said Ferrandino (D-Denver). “The legislature will once again consider establishing civil unions in Colorado.”

On Tuesday night, the governor met privately with McNulty to persuade him to bring the bill to the House floor. If not, Hickenlooper said he would likely call a special session.

“I thought the (special session) was a bad idea then – and I think it is a bad idea now,” said McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch). “The only piece of legislation that the governor wants to move is gay marriage.”

“It’s a continuing concern of many Coloradans because the bill advances gay marriage,” said McNulty. “The bill tries to call it something different, but that is what it is.”

McNulty considered the governor’s request to hear the bill on Tuesday, but he said Ferrandino had objected to five consecutive motions for the general reading of bills on the floor that night. He said that Ferrandino wanted to have SB 2 heard before any other bills.

Civil unions is a hot button issue that stirs impassioned responses from proponents, who believe same-sex couples been denied equal rights, and opponents, who warn that it threatens the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.

In 2006, Colorado voters overwhelming rejected Referendum I to establish same-sex unions and approved a protection of marriage amendment to the state Constitution. A same sex unions bill, sponsored by Democrats Ferrandino of Denver and Steadman of Longmont, was introduced in 2011, but died in the House Judiciary Committee.

Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate until 2011, but there was no attempt to pass a same-sex union bill under Gov. Bill Ritter. Instead their cause made gains in the successful passage of legislative bills.

For examples, Ritter signed into law a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 2008, and a bill to grant benefits to domestic partners of state employees and another to revise state statutes to extend designated beneficiary agreements to same-sex partners in 2009.

In the aftermath of this week’s stalemate, Ferrandino said that the House Republican leadership “blocked pro-equality legislation from coming to a vote because they knew civil unions had bi-partisan support needed to become law.”

“(They) spent the final hours of the legislative session using every trick and gimmick they could to stand in the way of ‘the arc of the moral universe.’” said Ferrandino in a media release to raise money to elect Democrats to take back the House.

Others disagreed with Ferrandino’s assessment.

“The Senate Democrats – particularly Brandon Shaffer and Pat Steadman – tried to engineer a plan to send (the civil unions bill) to the House at the bottom of the ninth inning,” declared Rep. Larry Liston (R-Colorado Springs).

“I don’t think it’s fair to blame the Republicans in the House. There’s plenty of blame to go around,” he said.

Liston and Sen. Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge) sponsored a bill to stabilize unemployment insurance rates – one of roughly 30 bills that weren’t heard Tuesday in the House.

Senate Bill 177 was introduced late in the session, however, Liston said it was not a controversial bill like civil unions that would require additional time to hear testimony from opposing sides.

The civil unions bill was introduced on Jan. 11 and assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee that waited until Feb. 15 to hear the bill. The following day, it was sent to the Finance Committee where it was approved. Though SB 2 was immediately sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by the bill’s sponsor Steadman, it wasn’t granted a hearing for two months.

After the Senate finally passed the bill on Thursday, April 26, it was sent to the House. It advanced through the House Judiciary, Finance and Appropriations committees by May 8 – the day before the end of the session.

“Sen. Steadman said it was the Republican Speaker Pro Tem (Rep. Kevin Priola) who asked him to hold the bill until it was too late for Republicans to face a primary challenge from the right… Priola asked Steadman to hold the bill until after it was clear whether he’d have a primary challenger. Priola was considering sponsoring the Civil Union Act,” reported Out Front Colorado.

“That is not true,” said Priola, who was nominated without a challenger at the Republican House District 56 on April 13.

“I never committed to sign onto the bill,” he declared, “I think the finger pointing from both sides on this bill is disingenuous.”

Priola confirmed that he had told Steadman that it would be difficult to find a House Republican bill sponsor because of the election year.

Asked if he will vote for SB 2, Priola said, “A lot of people are saying that it’s really too close to marriage. I don’t know. In concept, I believe people should be treated equally.”

He and other Republican legislators speculated that the bill may never reach the House floor. The bills to be heard, including SB 2, will go back through designated committee hearings on Monday, and the makeup of some committees could be changed.

If so, the Republicans who voted in committees for SB 2 – Rep. B.J. Nikkel (R-Loveland) on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Don Breezley (R-Broomfield) on the Finance Committee and Rep. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen) on the Appropriations Committee – may be scuttled to seat conservative legislators.

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