Colorado civil unions shot dead in GOP-controlled special session committee

DENVER– The gay-rights civil unions bill at the center of a special legislative session called by Gov. John Hickenlooper died as expected on a party line vote Monday in the Republican-controlled House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“I’m not surprised by the outcome at all,” said House bill sponsor Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, after the hearing. “We saw the end coming when [House] Speaker Frank McNulty assigned it to this committee, known as the Speaker’s kill committee.

“We had a majority in the House and the bill passed with a solid majority in the Senate. We just wanted it to enjoy the same vigorous debate on the House floor that it received in the four House committees where it appeared this year,” he said.

Republicans over the last week and in the committee hearing today said Democrats were playing politics with the bill, dragging out its introduction in the House and introducing it in an election year to place pressure one way or another on Republicans. Primary opponents could run against an “aye” vote, they say, and general election opponents could run against a “nay” vote.

“That’s just not true,” said Ferrandino. “We didn’t play politics. We introduced this bill to help families.”

He said he wasn’t sure what he would do differently given the standoff in the House that ended in the bill’s death.

“We can just help make sure that next year there continues to be a pro-equality majority but that leadership in the House won’t undermine that majority. We can work and organize from now till November to change that leadership.”

Republicans control the House this year with a one-seat majority. Most analysts believe that the new legislative district lines drawn last year have made it very likely that Democrats will control both chambers of the state legislature next year.

Uphill battle

Gay-rights organization One Colorado, the main activist group lobbying over the last two years for the bill, told the Independent it was seeking out members of the State Affairs committee today to talk about civil unions. Spokesman Jace Woodrum said it was “an uphill battle” and that the group “wasn’t confident” they could win over a single necessary Republican vote on the nine-member committee. Woodrum said they were focusing efforts on Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, a personally sympathetic figure who nevertheless has been politically opposed to gay rights.

“I’m the proud father of a son who happens to be gay… but I also represent 75,000 constituents in southwest Colorado,” Coram said before voting against the bill. He referred to the ballot box votes in 2006 that defined marriage in Colorado as a union between one-man one-woman and that rejected civil unions for same sex couples.

“I have a lot of friends in the gay community but what you’re asking me to do here is to invalidate the vote of the people.”

Coram said he thought the gay community was being used as “a political pawn” by Democratic lawmakers.

“They controlled the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature for four years. Why didn’t they pass it then. Why did they wait until we had a divided legislature? [Gay Coloradans] deserve respect but I feel an obligation to the voters I represent.”

Even as the proceedings got underway, the mood in the Old Supreme Court Chamber where the hearing was being held didn’t bode well for civil unions supporters. Opponents lined the walls and filled the seats, a departure from recent hearings on the bill, where opposition support seemed thin.

What’s more, Republican lawmakers seemed to be running away from the bill even as leaders waged war against it in the press.

An hour after the special session launched, House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, talked to the capitol press corps about the “gay marriage” politics being pushed by the governor. As the State Affairs Committee hearing got underway in the afternoon, Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, a one-time civil unions supporter, distanced himself from the bill on Twitter, writing that it was a “poke in the eye” for traditional marriage.

‘A fair hearing’

McNulty had assigned the civil unions legislation to the hardline State Affairs Committee in order to finally end the drawn-out battle over the bill. During the regular session, it had passed with strong bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled Senate and it passed with bipartisan majorities through three Republican-controlled House committees.

In the face of the bill’s unlikely progress and as key Republican primary campaigns heated up, McNulty seemed desperate. He had publicly promised a “fair hearing” for the bill on a number of occasions but in the end seemed determined not to let that happen.

On the next-to-last day of the session, the House Appropriations Committee passed the bill and sent it to the main chamber for debate, despite stalling efforts led by Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Bob Gardner.

As many as eight Republicans in the House, however, reportedly were ready to vote in favor of the legislation and three of them allied with Democrats to halt a McNulty-orchestrated Gardner-led filibuster intended to run out the clock and kill the bill Tuesday night.

When the pro-civil unions bipartisan bloc moved to end the filibuster, House leaders cut off debate and called a two-hour recess. Nearly 40 bills, including civil unions, died as a result, leading Hickenlooper to call for the special legislative session aimed at addressing the major bills left for dead in the wake of the historic House impasse.

Gay marriage versus civil unions

At the hearing Monday night, opponents of the bill mostly argued that the bill was a step on the road to gay marriage and that “traditional marriage” was the best arrangement in which to raise children.

Carrie Gordon Earl from Focus on the Family said the bill would lead to lawsuits. Once civil unions laws pass, gay marriage supporters file discrimination suits, she said. The financial costs of those suits should be included in the debate.

“It cost $10 million to defend California’s traditional marriage amendment,” she said. “Do we have that kind of money? What programs will the Colorado legislature cut to pay for such a lawsuit?”

Supporters of the bill mostly argued for equal rights. They said children thrive in two-parent loving homes, regardless of the sexual orientation of the parents, and that LGBT people endure soft and hard legally-sanctioned discrimination all the time.

“We say we’re ‘designated beneficiaries’ but people don’t even know what that means,” said Anna Simon, sitting next to her partner Fran. “People think that just means she’s the one I leave things to after I’m gone. But she’s the one I want to share my life with.”

Ferrandino, one of several openly gay lawmakers in the state, was eloquent but subdued in his closing remarks.

“We’re just asking to be treated equally in our state,” he said. “We’re not asking anyone here to say that being gay is OK. The fact is, we don’t have the same access to the laws that everyone else here does. It doesn’t seem democratic. [It doesn’t seem] to uphold the spirit of our country.”

[ Top: Denver Rep. Mark Ferrandino; bottom: Montrose Rep. Don Coram by TCI ]