Civil rightsLegislatureNews

Civil rights commission up for dogfight in Senate committee Wednesday

Author: Marianne Goodland - April 18, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

Janae Stracke, left, and Annabelle Rutledge, both with Concerned Women for America, hold up signs in support of cake artist Jack Phillips outside of the Supreme Court which is hearing the ‘Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission,’ Dec. 5 in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Wednesday’s biggest dogfight at the state Capitol is likely to be over House Bill 1256, the measure to reauthorize the state’s Division of Civil Rights and Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The bill is scheduled for the Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m.

The measure cleared the House on March 21 on a 36-26 vote. Despite Republican claims that they always have intended to allow the commission and division to continue, 26 of the House’s 28 Republicans (at that time) voted against the reauthorization bill.

During its time in the House, Republicans tried to amend the bill, which contained only the reauthorization and nothing else, to change the appointment structure and to strip the commission of its right to review Division decisions.

The fight this session has been over religious beliefs and whether people should be allowed discriminate against LGBTQ persons because of those religious beliefs.

In 2012, the Commission upheld a Division finding that a Lakewood baker, Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop, discriminated against a same-sex couple who asked him to bake a wedding cake. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld that finding, and a spring ruling is expected from the U.S. Supreme Court, which held a hearing on the matter in December.

One of the other issues at play with the reauthorization is its funding. Initially, the Joint Budget Committee in January split on a 3-3 vote along party lines to fund the agency in the 2018-19 budget. JBC Republicans like Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, who told an audience at Colorado Christian University last year that he would ensure religious beliefs would become a protected class, said he wanted to see what happened with the reauthorization bill.

But both the House and Senate, in their work on the 2018-19 budget, authorized the agency’s funding at just over $2.1 million. With the budget on its way to the governor, that issue is now resolved.

Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that he has four amendments for Wednesday’s hearing.

One amendment deals with appointment authority and the commission’s makeup, Gardner told reporters Tuesday. The commission would expand to eight members, with four appointed by the governor with Senate consent; two from the speaker of the House and/or minority leader; and two from the Senate president and/or minority leader. The amendment also dictates that one member must be from a labor union or “similar employee association.” The law’s section on making sure four of the members are from protected classes is unchanged in Gardner’s amendment.

The four appointees who are nominated by the Senate and House would not have to go through the confirmation process, under Gardner’s amendment.

Another amendment would allow the complainant or respondent to bypass the commission in favor of going to district court. “By going to district court, either party has the right to a jury trial,” Gardner explained, although acknowledging that going to court would likely be more costly. Gardner said that if the respondent wanted to go to court, the commission would be responsible for covering the complainant’s legal expenses, since many complainants would struggle to cover those costs.

That same amendment bumps up the fines for violations. Current law sets a cap of $50, but this amendment would set a $5,000 fine on a first violation, $10,000 on a second and $25,000 for third and subsequent violations. The change in the fine structure was a recommendation that came out of a sunset review on the agency conducted by the Department of Regulatory Agencies.

A “transparency” amendment is also on the agenda, Gardner said. “There’s very little transparency around complaints,” he said. His amendment would allow for public disclosure of complaints that would include the types of complaint, how it violated state law, and the outcome of the complaint. Under the amendment, the names of the parties and specific details of the case would remain confidential, as is current practice.

The last amendment seeks a performance audit of the division and commission, one in 2019 and another in 2024.

Gardner called the amendments “modest and reasonable.” He said some were calling for more radical change, including opening up the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. Gardner said he hoped the House would be willing to go to a conference committee to discuss the amendments, suggesting he expects the amendments to be rejected by the House. He reiterated the claim that Republicans want the commission reauthorized.

Both the bill’s Democratic sponsors from the House, Rep. Leslie Herod and Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, had not seen the amendments as of Wednesday morning.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.