May 9, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Yesterday night was certainly a heartbreaking and frustrating one for our community, but while the vote in North Carolina was a disappointment, events in Colorado were downright outrageous. After a marathon session of the state House of Representatives, a civil unions bill died at midnight, along with almost 37 other bills caught in the crossfire by Republicans’ blatant obstructionism.
First, some context. LGBT advocates were ecstatic when, after a civil unions bill passed the state Senate, a key House committee which voted down a similar bill last year approved this year’s version, allowing it to move forward. Timing was always a concern: with a legislative session scheduled to end at midnight tonight, in order to pass, the civil unions bill would have to be debated on the House floor by last night. There were many procedural hurdles to get through, and many points in the journey where the bill could fail.
But it didn’t. Republican committee leaders moved the bill through quickly, and it passed another committee without incident. Then, in the third and final committee to hear the bill, things got messy. Republicans debated bills that were dead on the calendar in an effort not to hear the civil unions bill, and moved the bill further down the schedule than it had originally been planned. Finally, the bill passed–but not before Republicans had added two potentially poisonous amendments to it which would either have to be voted out of the text on the full House floor or require a conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate version of the bill.
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.
Legislators rushed to the press table, eager to pin the delay on their opponents. Gov. Hickenlooper showed up in the Capitol and conferred with McNulty over scotch outside the building, but the House Speaker wouldn’t budge an inch. Rep. Nikkel and Rep. Massey, both moderate Republicans, tried to lobby McNulty to bring the house back into session, but were unsuccessful. McNulty told the press that the two sides’ differences “won’t be resolved tonight,” eliciting shouts of “shame on you” from the crowd. Lawmakers handed out a list of the 37 bills that would also die that night, bills about school discipline, marijuana DUIs, autism drug studies, and one that would have awarded $20 million of water projects in the state.
The Colorado House’s failure last night demonstrates just how beholden the state’s Republican lawmakers are to a small, radical conservative base. When Rep. Nikkel voted the civil unions bill out of committee, conservatives panicked, especially since they knew the bill would enjoy the support of at least five Republicans on the House floor, guaranteeing its passage. Because of that, they lobbied McNulty and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens to do everything they could procedurally to kill the bill.
The Republican leadership’s behavior last night was deplorable, but it doesn’t need to be the final say on the matter. In a powerful editorial yesterday, the Denver Post called on Gov. Hickenlooper to convene a special session of the legislature in order to address its unfinished business, including the civil unions bill. Hopefully, Democrats will point to the political maneuvers deployed against civil unions by Republicans during this fall’s elections, revealing their opponents as captives of a small minority that stands opposed to the majority of Coloradans who believe in equal rights.
No one put the issue more succinctly, or compellingly, I think, than Mario Nicolais, the head of the conservative group Coloradans for Freedom, which supported the civil unions bill. ”Civil unions will soon pass,” Nicolais said, “and so will the GOP House majority.”