In waning hours of session, state lawmakers reauthorize the embattled Colorado Civil Rights Commission

Advocates rallied on the west steps of the state Capitol after there was concern Republicans wanted to defund the Civil Rights Commission on Feb. 13, 2018. Photo by John Herrick 

After what was shaping up to be a partisan stalemate, lawmakers came to an agreement to reauthorize the embattled Colorado Civil Rights Commission in the final hours of this year’s legislative session.

The compromise ends one of the most politically fraught battles of the 2018 session dealing with a quasi-judicial commission that enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

The sticking point came down to who should serve on the seven-member panel and who should make appointments. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed to give business a stronger voice on the panel and to limit the governor from reappointing a person who was already rejected by the Senate. 

The reauthorization comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the most high-profile case the commission has ever considered in its 67-year history. It involves the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood who 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.

It also came amid debate over the potential reappointment of LGBTQ advocate Heidi Jeanne Hess as head of the commission. Last May, the Senate voted down her reappointment, but Gov. John Hickenlooper allowed her remain on the board until she resigned on Jan. 9.

Democrats wanted the commission unchanged — and were willing to roll the dice and wait until next year to reauthorize the commission. The commission would have been able to operate for one more year as it phased down because lawmakers already signed off on the $2.1 million to fund it. This gave them some leverage in the negotiations.

But ultimately, they brokered a deal with Republicans that both parties could stomach.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a lead sponsor on the bill, was watching the votes come in on the House floor late Wednesday night. It was the last bill of the session to pass the House. Duran, who is term-limited, let out a subtle cheer.

“I think this is a good solution,” Duran said prior to the vote.

Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee mentioned the Masterpiece case specifically when voting not to fund the commission earlier this year. That vote drew outrage from Democrats and civil rights advocates. Both chambers later approved $2.1 million for the commission.

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs worked to broker the deal, saying he wanted to see more control from the legislature over the nomination process to help balance out the commission.

“I think it forces the appointments to the middle,” Gardner said. “It certainly is a break on any particular appointee having an agenda.”

Still, he ended up voting against the compromise.

Under the plan, a majority of the members on the panel would still represent people who have faced discrimination based on, among other things, race and ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. But the makeup would be more business friendly; two members must be the majority owners of small- and medium-sized businesses and another would represent a chamber of commerce. The panel would also include three union representatives and one at-large member.

These changes to the makeup of the panel will come out in the wash, said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who is a lead sponsor on the reauthorization bill.

“I think the commision will be able to work effectively,” Herod said. “Was there a problem before? I don’t think so.”

Photo: Advocates rallied on the west steps of the state Capitol after there was concern Republicans wanted to defund the Civil Rights Commission on Feb. 13, 2018. Photo by John Herrick