Sunnivie Brydum filed this report on Colorado's civil unions bill from Denver:
On Thursday, Colorado's Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee approved a civil unions bill, one week after the state Senate moved forward on the legislation extending rights to unmarried couples.
In a bipartisan 6-5 vote, the committee voted to send the bill to the Finance Committee before a House floor vote. Outgoing representative B.J. Nikkel, a Republican, cast the deciding vote in favor of the legislation, which died along a party-line vote in the same committee last year.
Nikkel voted against last year's civil union legislation but said Thursday's hearing changed her mind.
"I've thought about it a lot, and I think it's the right thing to do," Nikkel said after the vote. "I simply believe in going with the legal rights that I think these folks ought to have. As I've said in the past, we're all Coloradans -- they're Coloradans too -- and I believe that they deserve to have some of the legal rights that the rest of us have."
Senate Bill 2 would afford all unmarried couples many of the same legal rights and benefits of marriage, including second-parent adoption, inheritance rights, and end-of-life and medical decision-making rights. All told, SB-2 would offer 27 rights at the state level. The bill does not allow for same-sex marriage, which Coloradans voted to constitutionally prohibit in 2006.
The bill passed the Democrat-controlled Senate in April on a bipartisan vote, and is expected to pass the remaining House Finance and Appropriations Committees. Gov. John Hickenlooper has promised to sign the legislation, which must make its way through the remaining legislative committees before the session ends on May 9.
House minority leader Mark Ferrandino, a gay Democrat from Denver who sponsored the bill, said he was "ecstatic" about Thursday's vote while acknowledging that the legislation still faces hurdles.
"It's still a work in progress," Ferrandino told The Advocate. "But I've had good conversations with members of both of those committees, and I think we are looking in a positive direction." Ferrandino stressed that supporters of civil unions should be contacting their representatives with even greater frequency as the bill moves through its final committees.
The four-hour hearing lasted well past 10 p.m., at which point the Old Supreme Court Chambers inside Colorado's state capitol were still packed to standing room only. Committee chair Bob Gardner, a Republican, exercised the right to limit testimony on each side to one hour - meaning that numerous people who had signed up to testify were denied the opportunity. In an effort to remedy this, Gardner asked everyone in the chamber who supported civil unions to stand. More than 95% of those in attendance -- including state senators seated in the audience -- rose to their feet. When he asked the opposition to stand, only about 10 people stood up.
When asked if she feared a negative reaction from other members of her party for her vote, Nikkel paused. "Not necessarily," she began. "I think my colleagues all respect me and they know I've been a very independent voice while being here in the legislature, and so I think that they recognize that."
But Republican senator Kevin Lundberg, a staunch opponent of civil unions, sent out a panicked email late Wednesday night that cited Nikkel's unwillingness to commit to a "no" vote, and went so far as to suggest that the Speaker of the House should remove Nikkel from the committee. Lundberg's "Legislative Report" acknowledged that SB-2 was likely to sail through other procedural hurdles if it passed the House Judiciary Committee.
"The legal practice of civil unions in Colorado now hangs on the vote of one Republican lawmaker, Rep. BJ Nikkel," Lundberg wrote in the email.
Ultimately, Lundberg's fears were confirmed, with Nikkel's deciding vote in favor of equality.
"It's amazing to see how quickly our state and our country is moving towards equal rights for everyone," Ferrandino said. "And living up to 'liberty and justice for all,' and not just some. So it's thrilling, it's amazing, and I'm just excited. But my excitement tonight, tomorrow turns into work to make sure this gets done by [the end of session]."
State Rep. B.J. Nikkel (left) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Denver. A Republican, Nikkel voted against civil unions last year, but changed her position and supported SB-2 in a Thursday vote. (Photo: Daniel Gonzales)