Civil rightsLegislatureNews

Senate attempts compromise on civil rights division, commission; House sponsors say ‘no’

Author: Marianne Goodland - April 27, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

debateSupporters of the state’s agency for civil rights called on state budget writers to fund the agency in a Feb. 13 rally. (Photo courtesy of One Colorado via Facebook)

Updated 5 p.m.: the governor weighs in. He doesn’t like it either.

The Colorado state Senate Friday came up with a compromise on the reauthorization of the state’s Division of Civil Rights and Civil Rights Commission, but it’s a compromise only in the Senate between the two caucuses.

House sponsors told Colorado Politics that they hadn’t been consulted, nor had they seen what the Senate came up with until the day of the debate.

The Senate debated House Bill 1256 Friday, producing an extensive rewrite of what happened in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 18.

When the bill left the House in March, it was simply a nine-year reauthorization of the agency, which includes the Division and the Commission. That didn’t sit well with House Republicans; all but two of the caucus’s 28 members voted against the bill, despite claims that Republicans favored reauthorizing the agency.

The Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee substantially changed the bill to increase the number of commission members from seven to eight, and to change who makes the appointments from the sole purview of the governor to an equal split between the governor and legislative leaders.

The amended bill would also allow either party in a complaint to bypass the commission and instead take the complaint to district court, with the commission bearing the legal costs for the complainant. It also would require performance audits in 2019 and in 2024, and requires more transparency on complaints.

On the Senate floor Friday, Republican sponsor Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs teamed up with Democratic Sens. Angela Wiliams of Denver and Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village on an amendment that struck parts of the amended bill that Democrats found most odious, as well as changed the commission’s structure — again.

The Senate amendment upped the number of commission members to nine, with five appointed by the governor and four by legislative leaders. One member would represent a state or local governmental entity; another would represent a statewide chamber of commerce or other statewide organization representing business or industry. There are several that fit the bill, including the Colorado chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, both which have criticized the commission as anti-business. The judiciary committee had already required one member to be from a labor union or similar employee association; one member from a small business with at least five employees; and one member from a small business that employes at least 25 employees.

Six members of the nine would be required to be affiliated with a major political party, with no more than three from each, and three members would be politically unaffiliated.

The Senate amendment also removed the option for parties to head to district court to resolve complaints, which raised concerns from Democrats that complainants often lack the means to mount a legal fight. And it wasn’t clear that the attorney general’s office, which represents the commission, would agree to represent complainants in district court.

But a compromise isn’t a compromise unless everyone signs off, and the bill’s House Democratic sponsors almost immediately said “no.”

Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver, one of two House sponsors, told Colorado Politics that she hadn’t seen the amendment until Friday and was never asked about a possible compromise. In a statement, Herod and Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said that changes added in the Senate go too far.

“We cannot support the current changes and hope that we can find common ground and pass a bill reauthorizing the Civil Rights Division and Commission before the end of the session,” they said. “Coloradans are watching.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper weighed in Friday afternoon.

“We disagree with adding partisan-affiliated appointments made by legislators to the commission, but there is a long way to go in the legislative process,” Hickenlooper told Colorado Politics in a statement. “We encourage the General Assembly to work toward common ground and ensure the integrity of the Commission’s work in protecting all Coloradans from discrimination.”

The bill will head to a final vote in the Senate, likely on Monday, and then to a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions.

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.