Legislature’s failure

House darkens legacy of session

During its 2012 session, the Colorado Legislature was able to find compromise on a number of contentious issues and pass essential measures that deal with such important business as next year’s budget, criminalizing new and dangerous drugs, and curbing health-care spending by rooting out fraud in the Medicaid program. But by refusing to fully debate – let alone pass – a measure allowing civil unions, the Colorado House of Representatives ensured that this year’s session will be remembered for what it failed to do, namely codify fairness and justice into Colorado statute.

It is not for lack of opportunity. Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, both Denver Democrats, had been proposed during the 2011 session and narrowly failed along party lines in the House. The bill garnered more widely spread support this year, though, reflective of the national trend toward recognizing and extending rights to couples in committed relationships, regardless of their sex. Despite having enough votes to pass a floor vote, though, Republican leadership in the House worked effectively to ensure that the measure never had the chance to face such a test – twice.

Failing to fully take up the measure in the regular session, legislators were sent back to work by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who ordered a special session to consider SB 2, among other unfinished business. Instead of giving it the hearing it deserved, House leaders assigned the measure to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, known more colloquially as the “kill committee,” where it was quickly dispatched to the legislative slag heap. It was not entirely unexpected, but it was wholly disappointing.

More so, though, was some of the rhetoric that accompanied SB 2’s demise. From Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty’s pat dismissal of the issue’s significance – “We have more important things to worry about,” he said – to insultingly presumptuous statements about how the gay community ought to feel about the discussion from Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, lawmakers kicked dirt in that group’s face.

Coram, whose son is gay, based his vote against the measure on the argument that civil unions are too close to same-sex marriage. In explaining his position, he criticized Democrats for politicizing the issue in an effort to gain votes in the upcoming election – going so far as to act indignant on behalf of the gay community, which he says was being used as “a political pawn.” It is outrageous for Coram to make such protective statements when he is unwilling to express similar concern in his votes on legislation that would extend basic rights to that community.

For Republicans to simultaneously dismiss the importance of civil-union legislation and co-opt how homosexuals ought to interpret the attempt to sanction these committed relationships is deeply insulting to all Coloradans. Voters entrust lawmakers to be respectful of all positions, regardless of which way they ultimately vote. That respect was glaringly absent in the handling of SB 2.

The result is a dark mark on the 2012 legislative session that will not be easily erased. Nevertheless, supporters of SB 2 are discouraged but not bowed by the measure’s demise. It will certainly be back in future sessions, and there is only room for improved behavior from lawmakers tasked with considering it. Extending rights to same-sex couples is an important issue, and the Legislature’s failure to do so was a squandered opportunity. May future sessions be more productive.