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Will Colorado special session on civil unions even address them?

May 13, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Colorado’s governor has ordered a special legislative session Monday to reconsider a civil unions bill, but it remained unclear this weekend whether the Republican-controlled Legislature would allow the proposal to come to a vote -- or even be debated.

The legislation, which the Democratic-controlled Senate has passed and which the governor has indicated he would sign, was stuck in a state House committee when the legislative session ended last week. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called the special session to address civil unions, among a handful of other proposals.

But Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty has the power to replace committee members who will determine whether the civil unions legislation comes up for debate. At a Thursday news  conference, McNulty, who has voiced his opposition to the civil unions bill in the past, criticized the governor's call for a special session and said it would require a "reset," the Denver Post reported.

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, who sponsored the bill, said that could mean McNulty plans to "reset" the committee that would consider the legislation by removing Republicans who support it.

“I’ve asked the speaker for a commitment that it will get to the floor," Ferrandino told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. "He has not made any comment to me that it will get to the floor.

“Given the games and lengths the speaker and majority leader were willing to go to on Tuesday night to keep this from coming to a vote, I have no indication things will change,” added Ferrandino, the first openly gay member of the Legislature.

“We will know how this goes depending on which Republicans  are appointed to that committee,” said Mario Nicolais, a Denver-based campaign finance lawyer and spokesman for Coloradans for Freedom, a conservative group formed to push for passage of civil unions.

“It is very likely a 'kill committee' is about to be created,” Nicolais told The Times. “I hope not. But that is definitely a potential outcome.”

In the House, five of 33 Republicans support civil unions, he said — enough to pass the bill.

“If it gets to the floor, it passes,” Nicolais said, “It’s not even a slim margin.”

But he said he hadn't received any word Friday from Republican House leaders that they would take up the bill.

“I continue to hold out hope that it will get a full hearing on the House floor,” said Nicolais, who noted that he is Republican, religious and straight.

“There’s so much support for it in Colorado, and not just on one side,” he said.

Less than a day after Hickenlooper announced the special session, One Colorado, a Denver-based group representing 25,000 gays and lesbians statewide, gathered 3,000 signatures on a petition asking McNulty to give civil unions "a fair hearing." The group organized a rally Saturday in Colorado Springs and others posted plans on Facebook to rally Monday in Denver.

Nine states already allow civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians; another eight plus the District of Columbia allow gay marriage or are awaiting enactment of laws legalizing it.

If Colorado's measure becomes law, the state would become only the second in the Rocky Mountain region to endorse civil unions or domestic partnerships after Nevada did so in 2009.

Supporters face significant opposition.

House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, who represents the Colorado Springs area and is running for reelection in a hotly contested Republican primary, bills herself at the top of her campaign Web page as “fighting the battle to stop civil unions.”

She formerly worked for the conservative Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, which has joined the Colorado Catholic Conference and other groups in campaigning against civil unions. Stephens did not respond to email questions about the legislation last week.

Focus on the Family supporters have already mailed 70,000 postcards to House members urging them to vote against civil unions, which they see as a first step toward legalizing gay marriage, a spokeswoman said.

“In other states, when civil unions or similar laws are passed, in virtually every case the next step is same-sex marriage or in our case, it would be a challenge to the marriage amendment” passed in 2006, said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for CitizenLink, the policy arm of Focus on the Family.

“There’s considerable opposition to this bill because of the concern of protecting our marriage amendment,” Gordon Earll told The Times.

She said her group was planning rallies on Monday and Tuesday in Denver.

“You will see proponents and opponents at the Capitol over the next few days,” she predicted.

It's not clear how long the special session could last. The most recent special session, called in 2006 to address immigration legislation, lasted five days.


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