Nikkel casts key vote to advance Colorado civil unions bill

DENVER– The House Judiciary Committee voted Thursday evening to advance a state civil unions bill that would grant legal recognition to same-sex couples. The bill died in the same Republican-controlled committee last year but on Thursday won the deciding vote of Loveland Republican Rep. B.J. Nikkel.

Nikkel told the Colorado Independent she has been seriously weighing the issue from the time she voted against the bill last legislative session but that conservative arguments in favor of the bill this year eventually swayed her.

“I was determined to really consider it and I thought about it a lot. I studied it,” she said as members of the media thronged her desk in the Old Supreme Court chambers immediately following the vote.

“These folks deserve the same rights as the rest of us,” she said. “I just think the bill needs to be heard by the full House. It’s an emotionally charged issue on both sides and we have a lot of smart people able to look at this as a legal document. It’s worth putting the bill forward to be heard from all my colleagues who represent all of Colorado.”

When Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, another possible swing member of the committee, responded to the roll call with a fast no vote, all the energy in the packed chamber seemed to flow toward Nikkel, who seconds later responded with a yay vote just as fast as DelGrosso said no.

Instructed before the roll call by Chair Bob Gardner, R- Colorado Springs, not to react one way or another to the votes but to “maintain the decorum” befitting the proceedings, the crowd nevertheless let out a burst of mixed applause and gasps.

Nikkel was targeted by social conservative Senator Kevin Lundberg in a memo he sent out late Wednesday night. He wrote to Republican lawmakers that she was on the fence about the bill and that Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, should be pressed to replace her on the committee with a reliable opponent of the bill.

That memo leaked, however, and Nikkel was there in her seat when the committee opened for business.

“I’ve been an independent voice since I got here,” Nikkel told reporters. “Leadership knows what they’re getting with me.”

The bill now has to pass in the House Finance Committee, the Appropriations Committee and survive two readings on the House floor. But the bill’s sponsors and most analysts are confident that the House Judiciary Committee was the high hurdle to clear. They say the bill enjoys solid support in the other committees and that the votes to pass the bill on the floor have already been lined up. They say the problem now is only time. The session is scheduled to wrap a week from today Wednesday and committee chairs reportedly can take as long as three days to advance a bill.

[ Image B.J. Nikkel by the Colorado Independent. ]