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Breaking: Colorado House passes civil unions bill

Civil Unions

By Jacob Combs

The Colorado House of Representatives has just passed a civil unions bill by a vote of 39-26.  Since the bill has already been approved by the state Senate, it will now go to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has pledged to sign it into law before the end of the month.  Same-sex and opposite-sex couples would be able to obtain civil unions starting on May 1.

Today’s successful vote in the Colorado House comes at the end of a tumultuous journey for civil unions in the Centennial state that has lasted for almost a year.  In April 2012, the Colorado Senate passed a civil unions bill 23-12, with three Republicans joining a unanimous Democratic caucus to vote in favor of the legislation.

During a floor debate on the measure, Republican Senator Ellen Roberts spoke of her hope that civil unions would undo some of the damage of Amendment 2, a successful 1992 ballot measure prohibiting any of the state’s three branches of government from recognizing gays as a protected class.  “In 1992, when Amendment 2 passed, I was stopped in my tracks,” she said at the time. “It was a punch in my stomach. [Passing civil unions] will restore your’s, mine and Colorado’s collective soul we lost in the 1990s.”

At the time, though, the state House was controlled by Republicans who opposed civil unions and were determined to keep the bill from passing.  Although the legislation successfully passed three House committees (with Republican votes) and appeared almost certain to pass a full floor vote after several Republicans announced they would support it, the bill died at midnight on the last day of the session, taking with it 37 other bills that were blocked by Republican leadership in order to keep civil unions from a vote.  As we wrote at the time:

The final committee vote happened around 5:00 p.m. Denver time.  The bill would have to be heard that evening in order to pass, but with seven hours, and a majority of representatives already committed to voting yes on the bill, that seemed possible.

When the House convened, Republicans pulled out all the stops to keep the bill from being considered.  First, the chairman of the final committee to consider the bill did not “read the bill across the desk,” meaning it could not be taken up by the full House.  Then, the Republican leadership took up a resolution on (irony alert) civility in the House, which it then passed about 30 minutes later.

According to veteran reporters who have experience covering the Colorado legislature, what happened next was one for the history books.  The Republicans moved to proceed to a calendar of bills for a second reading which would not have included the civil unions bill.  Democrats got Republican Rep. B.J. Nikkel (who had voted for civil unions in committee) to vote with them in blocking the motion, giving them an effective majority in the chamber, which is almost evenly divided with 33 Republicans and 32 Democrats.  After the motion failed, Republicans tried to make it again.  And again.  Then they tried, and failed, a fourth time.

House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican, and Minority Leader Mark Farrandino, took a private, closed-door meeting together to try to reach some sort of deal.  When the deal was announced, it looked like a good sign for civil unions advocates: the Democrats agreed to allow the second reading calendar once Republicans had read the civil unions bill across the desk, freeing it to come to the House floor.  The bill was read across, and the motion to go to second reading was adopted without any objections.

Then came the filibustering.  A bill that would ban trans fats in Colorado’s schools came up for consideration, and Rep. Bob Gardner demonstrated why filibustering a bill is called “doing a Bob” in the Colorado House.  Ferrandino, Nikkel, One Colorado (the group supporting civil unions) and representatives from the office of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (who supports the bill) held a spontaneous strategy conference outside the House chamber, then made sure all 34 members of their new-found majority were seated in the chamber.  And then, just as Democrats were about to force the filibuster to an end, Republicans promptly called a recess.

After the circus which ended the regular legislative session, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a supporter of civil unions, called a special legislative session and explicitly expressed his desire that the civil unions bill be allowed to come for a House vote.  The chamber’s Republican leadership, however, assigned the bill to a very conservative committee, where it died on a party-line 5-4 vote.

Later that year, a new group called Fight Back Colorado was formed in order to campaign against lawmakers who had opposed the civil unions bill.  In the 2012 election, Democrats retained their control of the Colorado Senate and flipped the state House from a narrow Republican majority to a solid Democratic one.  With civil unions now on their way to becoming law in Colorado, the long game that LGBT advocates in the state played seems to have finally paid off.

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