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More twists and turns as Colorado legislature wrestles with civil unions

More twists and turns as Colorado legislature wrestles with civil unions

DENVER — When the Colorado Civil Union Act of 2012 is introduced on the first day the General Assembly convenes, it will start a journey for the LGBT community — and for politicos, alike — that no one is quite sure where it will end up.

So many factors and actors are in play at this point that everyone involved should be prepared for more ups and downs than a roller coaster ride at Elitch Gardens.

Jesús Pascual, right, takes a photo of his sister Mickey Pascual and her partner, Barbara Jean Cooper, left, in front of the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol March 31, 2011. The three took part in a rally to support the Colorado Civil Union Act. The bill later died at a committee hearing on a Republican party-line vote. Photo by Evan Semon.

It could be argued that we know the fate of the bill has only two options: yea or nay. This is true. But if it is the latter, you can count on the civil union debate continuing into the 2012 election. Prepare for this robocall: “Republicans don’t support family values. They blocked critical legal protections for hundreds of Colorado families.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with Jan. 11. That’s the first day the Colorado legislature will convene. It will be also be the day the bill, sponsored by gay Denver Democrat state Sen. Pat Steadman, will be introduced.

The Senate

Unlike last year, when the bill was introduced mid-session on Valentine’s Day – part political theater, part legislative process – this go around will kick off on Day 1. And while the legislation will eventually sail through the Senate with bipartisan support, don’t plan on seeing that happen anytime soon.

First, the bill will be introduced alongside nearly a hundred other bills. All must be assigned to a committee and scheduled for a hearing. Last year, the civil union bill appeared before three committees in the Senate: Judiciary, Finance and Appropriations.

Steadman, who is part of the Senate’s leadership, has a great deal of control on how quickly the bill will clear that chamber. Moreover, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Steadman can hold the bill for several weeks.

And he may need to.

The House

The No. 1 priority for freshly-minted Minority Leader Rep. Mark Ferrandino, a gay Democrat, is to find a Republican co-sponsor in the House. Last year, it was a Republican-led committee that stopped the bill he co-sponsored with Steadman from becoming law.

At the time, there were at least five Republicans in that chamber who pledged to vote for the bill, ensuring passage. But it never reached the full floor of the House.

Republicans are still in control of the House by one vote. That means House Speaker Frank McNulty and Majority Leader Amy Stephens decide what committee each bill goes to, and if so moved, can use their majority power to pick and chose which bills will clear those committees.

Supporters of the bill claimed it was McNulty and Stephens who ordered the bill’s death in 2011. McNulty denied those accusations, while Stephens has yet to respond to an interview request from Out Front Colorado.

Onlookers believe bills without a Republican co-signer have little-to-no chance of clearing a committee, making it crucial to find a member of the GOP ready to stand up.

External Forces

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind the number of organizations opposed to civil unions is quickly eroding, while poll after poll indicates Coloradans are in favor of same-sex relationship recognition.

And while the few steadfast religious right groups yield enormous sway in the Republican Party, they’re being met with resistance from some of their closest allies.

Coloradans for Freedom is a group of Republicans bent on making sure civil unions become law under their leadership.

Comprised of past and present lawmakers, political analysts and party faithful, the organization is a manifestation of what supporters of the bill have been saying all along: relationship recognition for the LGBT community is a non-partisan issue that is widely supported.

Meanwhile, statewide LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado has been working in five communities of interest – Colorado Springs, Loveland, Durango, Grand Junction and the Denver suburbs – to find supporters and connect them with lawmakers, building their coalition of organizations and businesses and training volunteers to testify in the media and at hearings.

Riding momentum

Supporters argue: the Republican House leadership is running out of excuses to stop civil unions from becoming law. Census data shows more same-sex couples living in Colorado, New York’s Republican Senate cleared the way for same-sex marriage there.

And now with an identified base of support from within the Grand Old Party, it should seem like a lock. But only time will tell if McNulty and Stephens will join their New York colleagues and step into “the right side of history” or retreat to their base.

The No.1 priority for supporters of the Colorado Civil Union Act is to secure a Republican co-sponsor for the bill in the House of Representatives. There are at least five GOPers who said they’d vote for the bill if it reached the floor.

The question is, will one these lawmakers go even further and carry the legislation.

Nic Garcia is the senior managing editor of Out Front Colorado.
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