House Judiciary Committee passes civil unions bill, but hurdles remain

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DENVER –The controversial civil unions bill cleared what may be its most difficult hurdle as the House Judiciary Committee, which killed the measure a year ago, passed the bill on a 6-5 vote late Thursday night.

As expected, Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, cast the deciding vote in favor of Senate Bill 2, breaking with the other Republicans on the panel and siding with proponents of the measure.

“We’re all Coloradans and I think we should probably all be treated the same,” Nikkel said following the vote.

Nikkel, who is in her final term at the legislator, is a former staffer for Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who authored a federal amendment against gay marriage. After voting no a year ago, Nikkel, who was lobbied intensely by people on both sides of the issue, had a change of heart this year.

“I got to the point of just recognizing that the bill, what’s it’s really doing is providing some legal structure that I came to believe is really important and necessary to treat everybody the same here in Colorado.”

The bill now faces another test before the House Finance Committee, which could come either Friday or Monday.

It depends on how soon the House Judiciary Chairman, Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, signs the committee report from Thursday night’s hearing.

After last night’s hearing, Gardner signed committee reports on every bill considered by his committee except the civil unions measure, an indication that House Republicans may be looking to stall the bill’s progress, knowing that only four days remain in the legislative session.

FOX 31 Denver has learned that Gardner is likely to wait until Monday, taking the full 72 hours allowed before signing the committee report; although that would still allow time for a hearing before the House Finance Committee, where a subsequent hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, and two days of votes by the full House.

Republicans on both the Finance and Appropriations Committees have indicated support for the bill — so if the hearings take place in time, the bill is likely to survive and make it to the House floor.

“This is a great evening, we’ve done something we weren’t able to do a year ago in getting the bill out of a House committee,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the bill’s sponsor. “But we’ve got more steps to go.”

If the bill reaches the House floor by Tuesday, it’s expected to pass the full chamber, where at least a few Republicans, aside from Nikkel, have indicated their support for civil unions.

Hickenlooper has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

In his State of the State Address at the start of the legislative session, Hickenlooper implored lawmakers to “pass civil unions this year.”

Hickenlooper’s own chief counsel, Jack Finlaw, was among those who spoke in favor of the bill at Thursday’s hearing.

Despite opposition from a majority of Republican lawmakers, support for civil unions seems to be swelling across the state, with a recent poll showing that 72 percent of Coloradans support the proposal.

Outside the building, several high profile Republicans have been demonstrating their support, with the newly-formed group, Coloradans for Freedom, arguing that supporting civil unions fits within conservative principles of individual freedom and limited government.

The group even issued a press release Wednesday, hoping to convince GOP lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee to allow the bill to reach the House floor.

“With such broad support, including from such a large percentage of conservatives, it is clear the members of the Judiciary Committee must allow the civil unions debate to continue,” said Mario Nicolais, a GOP attorney and the group’s spokesman, in the press release.

“Such important issues should not be determined by a select few members on a small committee, but should be debated before the whole House.”

One Colorado, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, held a lunchtime rally Thursday across from the Capitol on the steps of the Denver City and County Building with Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Robin Kneich leading the show of support for the bill.

“Issues with overwhelming public support like civil unions deserve to be debated on the floor by all of our Representatives,” said Brad Clark, the Executive Director of One Colorado.

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