Democrats took the granite steps of the state Capitol on Tuesday demanding that the GOP fund the Colorado Civil Rights Commission after three Republicans on a state budget committee voted last week to withhold funding for the agency.
Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, the first black lesbian elected to the state legislature, rallied a crowd on the west steps, citing Colorado’s history of protecting civil rights. She gave a shout out to former Denver mayor and state legislator Wellington Webb, who stood behind her, for introducing the first bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation in the state legislature in 1975.
“That’s the Colorado way,” Herod told the crowd numbering over one hundred. “We will not go backward.”
Republicans say they are committed to funding the commission, but want to change who serves on the commission and how members are appointed.
The seven-member Colorado Civil Rights Commission investigates hundreds of discrimination complaints brought against employers, landlords or businesses each year. The commission is fighting a high-profile case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood. The baker, Jack Phillips, refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because he said it conflicted with his First Amendment right of artistic, religious and free speech expression.
The Joint Budget Committee tabled funding for the commission after three Republicans voted against it. This drew outrage among advocates and Democrats, who said Republicans sought to defund the commission.
Republicans called the outrage “political demagoguery.” Republican leaders say the Civil Rights Commission, which dates back to the 1951 Fair Trade Employment Practices Office, is important and they are committed to funding it. But it is up for its periodic sunset review, meaning lawmakers have to reauthorize it this legislative session, and Republican lawmakers say they want to wait until after that review before funding the commission because its budget may change.
The House Judiciary Committee is considering the review currently.
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, chairs the Senate Judiciary committee that will review the commission in the Senate. He told reporters on Tuesday he wants to fund the commission but has some changes in mind.
Gardner said the makeup of the commission needs to include better representation for small businesses. He is also concerned the executive branch is making all the appointments, he said.
A report by the Department of Regulatory Affairs recommends increasing civil penalty amounts in public accommodation cases from a $500 to up to $5,000 for the first violation, $10,000 for the second violation and $25,000 for any subsequent violations.
Gardner said Republicans are concerned that a politically appointed commission could impose penalties this high.
Last year, Senate Republicans voted down the re-appointment of LGBTQ advocate Heidi Jeanne Hess as head of the Civil Rights Commission, citing concerns over Hess’ ties to the advocacy group One Colorado. Senate President Kevin Grantham is pushing a bill through the Senate that would prohibit the governor from nominating someone who the Senate already rejected.
Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters on Tuesday a report by DORA says the commission is doing pretty well the way it is. He said he absolutely supports its core mission and that without it, there would be cases where civil rights are infringed.
During the rally, Julie Reiskin, the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, told stories of disabled people who face daily instances of discrimination. She asked the crowd to imagine being deaf and showing up to a community rally, but being unable to participate because there was no sign language interpreter.
“That’s what happened to our deaf community today,” Reiskin said. “And that is not OK.”