The lengths to which House Republican leadership went to thwart the passage of SB 2, the Civil Unions bill, were amazing and shocking. On the evening of Tuesday, May 8, 2012, a disgusting spectacle was played out on the floor of the House of Representatives before a large audience of bill supporters, an audience that grew more impatient and angrier as night wore on. Those who witnessed this spectacle are not likely to soon forget it.
During and since that evening, accusations have occurred that attempt to blame or distract. This is my effort to tell the sad, sad saga of SB 2, how it got closer than ever but ultimately still came up short. It didn’t go down in flames, but instead imploded from the pressure of House leadership’s determination to avoid bringing it to a vote before the full House of Representatives. Everyone knew that had a vote been taken, the bill would have passed. So the House leaders made certain no vote could occur.
The story of SB 2 begins on the first day of the 2012 legislative session, January 11. This is the day the bill was introduced and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. A hearing before that committee took place on February 15. It lasted all afternoon and into the early evening. From there the bill was referred to the Finance and then Appropriations Committee. SB 2 was held in the Senate Appropriations Committee until mid-April. It passed out of this committee on the same date as the budget package. It wasn’t considered on the Senate floor until the week after the budget package was passed. The second reading debate on SB 2 took place on the same day as the culmination of the conference committee on the budget. It took all morning. As a member of the JBC, I was pretty busy this entire time.
One of the things that kept me busy was attempting to recruit a Republican member of the House to sponsor the bill in that chamber. Several House Republicans were supportive of the bill, but only a couple gave any serious thought to being the lead sponsor. A suggestion was made that waiting until after the candidate nominating process was further along might be helpful to their decision. Otherwise, it was easy to see an incumbent being threatened with a primary election challenge, and this made finding a willing sponsor all the more difficult. And while we patiently waited, lawyers active with the Colorado Bar Association spent several weeks analyzing SB 2 and recommending amendments.
SB 2 passed the Senate on a vote of 23 to 12 on April 26, a Thursday. It was not introduced in the House until the following Tuesday, May 1. House leadership was responsible for this delay. The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee took place on Thursday, May 3, and the bill passed on a vote of 7 to 6. The next day, the House Finance Committee also approved the bill on a vote of 7 to 6. The bill was next referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which heard the bill on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 8. Before acting on SB 2, the House Appropriations Committee spent the afternoon debating several House Bills in what can only be described as a filibuster. Because only two days remained in the regular legislative session, there was not time to comply with the constitutionally required process for passing legislation, which requires at minimum 3 days. House Bills needed to pass the House on third reading by Tuesday to have any hope of meeting the deadline, meaning the House Bills heard in the House Appropriations Committee that afternoon were already dead. But the committee spent hours debating them anyway.
Finally SB 2 was passed out of House Appropriations Committee on a vote of 7 to 6. It was late in the afternoon, and the House was called back to order to resume floor work after the committee meeting had ended. But the report from the House Appropriations Committee that indicated SB 2 had passed out of committee was not read across the desk in the House chamber. Until that occurred, SB 2 was not on the calendar for consideration. The House took up a resolution regarding civility in the legislature, an annual gesture of late to remind legislators to be nice to one another. The resolution had languished on the calendar for several weeks, but this was the time chosen to bring it up. The use of this resolution as a stall tactic was particularly ironic.
Upon completion of the debate of HJR 1020 (the civility resolution), House Majority Leader Amy Stephens moved to take up General Orders, second reading debate on bills. Because the Appropriations Committee had not yet reported the passage of SB 2, it was not on the General Orders calendar, and instead it would have to be taken up on a Special Orders calendar, but that couldn’t happen until the committee report had been read across the desk. When Rep. Stephens moved to proceed to General Orders, Rep. Mark Ferrandino objected, forcing a vote on the Majority Leader’s motion. This was most unusual, as normally the Majority Leader controls the calendar. What happened next was even more irregular, because the Majority Leader lost this motion on a vote of 32 to 32, with one Democratic member absent from the chamber. The failure of the Majority Leader’s procedural motion sent shock waves through the House.
Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller then repeated the motion to proceed to General Orders, and Rep. Ferrandino again objected. A recorded vote was taken and this time the motion failed 31 to 34. All members were present, and now two of the three Republican members who had supported SB 2 in committee were voting with the Democrats to defy the floor leaders’ procedural motions. This was tantamount to mutiny.
All told, there were five consecutive procedural motions to proceed with General Orders that were rejected by the House. Republican Reps. B.J. Nikkel, Don Beezley and Laura Bradford all voted with the Democrats at various times to block the floor leaders’ ability to control the calendar. The atmosphere in the House chamber was highly charged and tensions were running high. And the third floor gallery above the House chamber, where the public may watch the proceedings, was full of SB 2 supporters, many wearing red One Colorado t-shirts. Most had been at the Capitol all afternoon and had sat through the tedious stall tactics in the House Appropriations Committee. They were growing restless and were well aware of what was now happening on the House floor.
After five failed attempts to control their calendar, the floor leaders negotiated an agreement with Rep. Ferrandino. In exchange for reading the House Appropriations Committee report across the desk, he would allow them to proceed to General Orders. SB 2 would not be on the General Orders calendar, because having just been read across the desk it would have to be taken up in Special Orders, but because it was the next to last day of session, Senate Bills in either of these calendars had to pass second reading before midnight. By allowing the House to proceed to General Orders, Rep. Ferrandino was making sure the House could get all its work done. But the House leaders had other plans.
The House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole to consider General Orders, and the committee launched into a full blown filibuster. Each bill on the General Orders calendar was debated ad nauseum, and the tenor of the debate grew more preposterous with each passing minute. A bill regarding trans fats in school cafeteria food became the subject of a debate that lasted over an hour, with a series of ridiculous amendments offered only to cause delay. The clock was ticking, it was well past dinner time, and tense negotiations were taking place in the anterooms adjoining the House chamber.
By 9:00 pm the House Democrats had had enough. Rep. Claire Levy was recognized during debate of a juvenile crime bill, and she made a motion for the committee to “rise and report.” This was yet another mutinous act, as normally only the Majority Leader makes this motion at the completion of second reading debates. And the motion to “rise and report” is not subject to debate. Upon the making of this motion, the Chairman of the Committee of the Whole, Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, immediately put the committee into recess and walked off. He did not call for a vote on this non-debatable motion, and instead left the committee in recess for over two hours.
What happened next was a descent into a chaotic and at times ugly scene. People milled about as leaders of both parties had arguments off to the sides of the chamber. With a non-debatable motion on the floor and the committee in recess, Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller engaged in what might be described as part debate, part press conference with Rep. Ferrandino and the numerous members of the news media gathered at the press table in the front corner of the chamber. With the committee in recess, the microphones were all turned off, but visitors in the gallery could hear much of what was being shouted to the crowd of reporters. The crowd of reporters and TV cameras pressed to this front corner of the chamber. Several shouting matches took place as some members left the floor. Other invited visitors onto the floor, and the chamber became quite crowded.
At approximately 11:00 pm, after two hours of recess and several different impromptu press conferences at the press table, an agreement was made to call it a night. Speaker McNulty came onto the floor to address the media. Speaking uncharacteristically softly it was hard for the people in the gallery to hear what he was saying, but his body language made clear he was halting the process, and he kept telling reporters an “impasse” had been reached. Reporters were firing off tough questions, but the Speaker walked off. At this point the audience in the gallery erupted into a chorus of “Boo” and then began loudly chanting “Shame on You” for a minute or two. The State Patrol was ordered to evict the occupants of the gallery and close it to the public. This sort of disturbance in the gallery hadn’t happened for decades.
After the gallery was cleared by the State Patrol, the committee was brought out of recess Rep. Levy withdrew her motion to rise and report, and Rep. Stephens then made a motion to rise and report and this motion was declared passed. The Committee of the Whole reported that it had spent all evening and had passed only 4 bills on second reading. Its report was adopted and the House adjourned for the night.
By failing to complete second reading debates on the next to last night of the session, the House made it impossible for dozens of bills to pass. Included on the list of collateral damage of this debacle on the House floor were bills appropriating funds for water resource infrastructure projects at reservoirs across the state, helping control unemployment premium increases for employers, authorizing new business entities, setting a per se standard for driving while impaired by marijuana, authorizing civil unions, and many others. All died upon adjournment of the House that evening due to abuses of the legislative process. House leadership went to extreme lengths to avoid bringing SB 2 to the floor and in the process damaged the integrity of the legislative process. No rules were broken, but the institution was dishonored and a disgusting spectacle overtook the people’s House. It was a scene I don’t think I can ever forget, and I never want to see repeated.
All of this to avoid the passage of one bill…
A Special Session to deal with the aftermath of this debacle will begin on Monday, May 14. The agenda includes Civil Unions, as well as a handful of the bills that were unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire Tuesday night.
The press coverage of this story has been cursory, but the editorial response fairly stern. Here’s a small sampling: