The Colorado House took a very wrong turn the evening of May 8, as the 2012 General Assembly wound down its work. From 3:00 pm to 11:30 pm, political hardball turned into something distasteful. The bitterness was felt everywhere in the State Capitol today, the last scheduled day of the session.
SB12-002, the civil union bill, is fraught with irony. No civility occurred in how the bill was handled in the House. House Republicans did more than filibuster and run out the clock on the premise that any two people can join in a civil union to raise children, take care of each other in sickness and health, and share their lives with some legal certainty as a foundation.
House Republicans wouldn't debate SB-002
Unlike the debate between Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, over SM-003 the previous week, which focused on principled examination of freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and privacy, a majority of House Republicans wouldn't debate SB-002 at all.
In House Appropriations, the endless yakity yak on bills that had no chance of making it through the Chamber seemed a bit clever. "Oh," lobbyists in the room murmured, "they're filibustering so they won't have to debate civil unions." Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, questioned the tactic while the audience in red, One Colorado tee shirts, the GLBT people, and men in cleric collars, the anti GLBT group, looked on.
Even so, most people in the room believed that Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, would eventually be able to cast the deciding vote to move the bill, which she did.
Bill moves from Appropriations Committee to Chamber
People from all sides of the civil union bill crowded into the House gallery. House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, began to move through the long list of second reading bills. Every bill was debated to the nth, but mostly by Republicans. SB12-068, the prohibition on trans fats for school kids bill, even received some desk pounding as Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, argued passionately for the freedom to provide chocolate to school children.
Levy calls "Rise and Report"
Finally Claire Levy had enough again. She exercised the parliamentary rule to "Rise and Report," a non-debatable question that requires the chair to identify what has been accomplished and what will happen next.
McNulty called a recess. For about two hours, with minutes clicking down, he retreated to his office. He talked to Gov. John Hickenlooper and with leadership from both parties. They could not reach a resolution, and apparently McNulty couldn't or wouldn't let the debate on civil unions, about half way down the bill list, go forward. At the same time, Rep. Mark Waller, R-COSpgs, dueled with House Minority Leader and SB12-002 bill sponsor Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, about who had done more to derail the bill.
Gallery learns Civil Union bill won't come up for a vote
When McNulty finally came out of his office, it was clear the jig was up. No debate would happen on SB12-002 that night. When the gallery began to understand what happened, a chorus arose from one side of the Chamber to the other: "Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!" Lobbyists who have worked at the Capitol for years had never heard anything like it. When one person yelled an expletive, the gallery was emptied and Republican House members were left to their self-made disaster.
Thirty-two bills and one resolution were still on the list for action. Important issues included: disciplinary reform for school districts, millions of dollars in water projects, revised punishment for various felonies, standard measures for driving under the influence of marijuana, "benefit" corporations, dental services for pregnant women, and appropriations for higher education - all work unfinished.
Today the parties from both chambers caucused to sort through the mess. The elevators filled with unhappy citizens, lobbyists, and legislators. No one could quite believe how the House had gotten so cross-ways.
Basically, the statehouse does represent the men and women from Colorado, with legislators coming from many professions, many ages, both sexes, and diverse religious, ethnic, and racial groups. Some legislators are wealthy, but most live on average incomes and lead regular lives.
But on civil unions, the tone in the House turned bad from the get-go. Anti-civil union Republicans voiced their unhappiness over some colleagues voting in favor of the bill. McNulty said he couldn't clear out his voice mail. He got pressure from every direction. Stacks of cards came in to House members carrying the anti-gay message of the Catholic Church. Thousands of pro-email landed in legislator boxes.
Incivility from public carries into House
On both sides, the debate coming in from the public crossed lines of civility. But McNulty himself said the week before that legislators needed to maintain their self discipline and respect for each other and their institution. That didn't happen Tuesday night.
Gov. Hickenlooper is giving the legislature a do-over. McNulty will have another chance to let a measured, thoughtful, careful debate occur. If he does, will the anti-civil union people "punish" him, or others, in November? Or will both sides accept that sometimes, in a republic, the principle of giving a bill a fair and open debate is at least as important as the vote itself.