Final act on civil unions offers lawmakers a defining moment

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DENVER — There are three days left in this year’s legislative session and lawmakers still have dozens of bills to consider.

But, in reality, these last three days are about one bill, a proposal to legalize same-sex civil unions; and its ultimate fate will put a defining capstone on how the electorate views the legislature — specifically, Republicans — heading into the fall election season.

If House Republicans allow the bill to clear the final three legislative hurdles — a vote before the House Appropriations Committee and then second- and third-reading votes before the full House — the story will be that of a shift in the GOP, of a growing number of conservatives recognizing the public’s wide acceptance of granting equal legal rights to gay and lesbian couples.

But if House Republicans run out the clock on Senate Bill 2 by delaying the final hearing and initial floor vote, which must take place by Tuesday, the story will be that of a stubborn House Majority, unwilling to bend to its more moderate members — 46 percent of those polled at the GOP’s state assembly last month indicated their support for civil unions — when met with pressure from a vocal conservative base, threatening lawmakers with primary challenges should they stray too far from traditional conservative values.

Even with a group of prominent Republicans, “Coloradans for Freedom”, forming this year to give a more public face to conservatives who support civil unions, it’s worth noting that, thus far, the only two House Republicans to vote in favor of civil unions, Reps. B.J. Nikkel and Don Beezley, whose yes votes alone have kept the bill alive through its first two committee hearings in the House, are not seeking reelection this year (other Republicans who have expressed support for the measure, and could vote on it if it reaches the House floor, are running for reelection).

So what’s going to happen?

As of Monday morning, the House Appropriations Committee, which must hear and approve the bill before it reaches the House floor, is not scheduled to meet until Tuesday.

Even if that hearing happens Tuesday morning, it’s possible the bill could be debated on the floor that afternoon. But Speaker Frank McNulty continues to make no promises that will happen, insisting that the civil unions bill won’t be given special treatment and scheduled ahead of other bills.

But McNulty also understands that his effort to talk about adhering to the normal legislative process or any attempt to pin the blame on the Senate sponsor, who waited 108 days before moving the bill to the House, won’t stick — that, ultimately, the bill’s potential death will leave the blood on his hands, potentially cost Colorado’s GOP with swing voters in the fall, and result in a windfall of additional campaign donations from Tim Gill and other progressive donors to Democratic House candidates.

There may be dozens of other bills ahead of Senate Bill 2 on the House calendar. But, with just three days left, the public isn’t paying much attention to those, riveted instead by the drama around civil unions, what will happen at the Capitol and the story it will tell about our state and our elected officials.

Last Friday, Gov. John Hickenlooper, when asked about the civil unions drama at a press conference in his office, remained optimistic that House Republicans, at the end of the day,  wouldn’t stand in the way of a bill that appears to have wide support from the public.

“I don’t think you’re going to see that,” Hickenlooper said. “Usually, when the speaker says he’s going to do something, he does it. And he certainly hasn’t said anything to me that he’s going to slow it down.”

Hickenlooper, of course, called on lawmakers to pass the civil unions legislation in his State of the State Address at the beginning of the legislative session.

Now, with three days left, the bill’s passage is a real possibility — but still no guarantee.

“This will be a moment of historical significance for the state of Colorado,” Hickenlooper said.