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 Civil Unions Pass Initial Colorado Sen. Vote

 Civil Unions Pass Initial Colorado Sen. Vote

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In an initial voice-vote, the Colorado State Senate approved a bill that would establish civil unions on Monday. Senate Bill 172, introduced by openly gay Sen. Pat Steadman (pictured), would create civil unions which offer most of the rights and benefits given to married Colorado couples. The bill will face a final vote in the Senate later this week, after which it will be sent to the House, where Republicans have a one-seat majority. If SB-172 passes the House, it will arrive on Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk, where he is expected to sign it.

"I think that it was a historic moment, and I was really proud to be there," said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, a Reverend and out lesbian co-sponsoring the bill. "I'm hoping that the tide of change is with us. It hasn't come without a lot of pain and a lot of loss, but I'm hoping that the prevailing winds keep moving us forward, because it's the right thing. It's about justice and equality."

The bill is expected to pass the Senate on its final reading, since all 20 Democratic senators are co-sponsors of the bill, giving them a majority in the 35-seat Senate.

Once the bill passes the Senate, it will move to the House of Representatives, where openly gay Rep. Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver) will introduce the bill. Ferrandino has said there are enough bipartisan votes to pass the bill in the House, but first it must make it out of an as-yet-undetermined committee.

Brad Clark, Executive Director for LGBT advocacy group One Colorado, is optimistic that Speaker of the House Frank McNulty will treat the bill fairly, and not send it to a kill committee, effectively ending the bill's trajectory through the legislature.

"The speaker has committed to a fair hearing when it moves over to the House," said Clark. "And we think issues of this great of importance to Coloradoans - 72% of Coloradans support [legislation like] this - deserve an up or down vote by the full body of the House."

Of the bill's chance for passage in the Republican-controlled House, Sen. Guzman said, "It depends a great deal on which committee it's sent to. If it's sent to their Judiciary committee, it has a huge chance of passing. If it's sent to State Affairs or whichever is their killing committee, it won't even reach the floor. But there are many Republican friends that I have in the House who are very supportive."

Senate discussion of SB-172 dominated the chamber's morning agenda, and featured emotional testimony from both supporters and opponents of the bill. Steadman's voice periodically broke as he explained the rights denied committed LGBT couples under current Colorado law. In his introduction, Steadman listed examples of cases where medical decision-making, adoption, legal power-of-attorney and inheritance - as automatically granted to married spouses in Colorado - were denied to LGBT couples, sometimes leaving them "penniless on the sidewalk."

Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg (Berthoud) continued the line of opposition he's been advancing since the bill's first hearing in the Senate Judiciary on March 7. Speaking against the bill, Lundberg repeated his claims made in earlier hearings: "This is a dramatic change to the state of marriage in Colorado," said Lundberg. "It's marriage with a different name."

Lundberg cited the 2006 elections, in which Coloradans passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman and simultaneously dismissed a domestic partnership bill. "This is a very different road than what most citizens of Colorado are wanting to see occur," said Lundberg. "Go ahead and vote for it, but don't vote for it with the idea that Colorado wants to see this."

Lundberg also dismissed Steadman's claim that respect for medical decision-making, when one partner is hospitalized or incapacitated, was a challenge for gay and lesbian Coloradans. Lundberg mentioned his own wife's recent hospitalization, saying that no one ever asked him to produce a marriage license in that scenario, so he has no reason to believe this is a problem in Colorado.

Lundberg was joined in voicing his opposition by Sen. Keith King, who questioned Steadman on the portability of Colorado civil unions and on the subsequent state recognition of other similar out-of-state same-sex unions. After a private meeting between Steadman, King and five other Senators, King offered an amendment which clarifies the responsibility of Colorado in recognizing same-sex unions from other states. Steadman explained that SB-172, as written, treats any out-of-state same-sex union as a civil union for Colorado legal purposes, but that by supporting the amendment, Steadman hoped he could ask for King's "aye" vote.

Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango rose in support of King's amendment and the bill itself. Roberts was the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill when she heard it as part of the senate judiciary committee.

Only Lundberg and King spoke in opposition to the bill, though the voice vote clearly indicated they are not the only senators opposed. Regardless, Steadman, Guzman and Clark all commended the civil tone of the discourse, a stark contrast to the graphic anti-gay testimony heard in the initial senate judiciary hearing.

"I thought that it was a very civil and respectful debate," said Clark. "Sen. Steadman did a tremendous job of presenting the story and the need for civil unions, and I think what we're looking forward to is a fair and full hearing in the House."

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