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Joint Budget Committee votes not to fund Colorado's civil rights offices

February 8, 2018 Updated: February 8, 2018 at 6:58 pm
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The Joint Budget Committee Thursday deadlocked over 2018-19 funding for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Division of Civil Rights, effectively killing the agency's funding beginning July 1 if that decision is not reversed.

Republican state Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud posted on his Facebook page that the decision on whether to fund the civil rights commission, which is embroiled in a U.S. Supreme Court fight over a discrimination case, is predicated on whether the commission can survive a sunset review of its authority.

Gov. John Hickenlooper's spokesperson Jacque Montgomery told Colorado Politics that the Civil Rights Commission and its staff "are charged with protecting Coloradans from unlawful discrimination and promoting equal protection in areas such as housing and employment. Refusing to fund the Commission is puzzling at best, and sends the wrong message to Coloradans - and businesses looking to move to Colorado - on the state's commitment to equal rights."

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, is sponsoring the sunset review bill that would reauthorize the civil rights commission and division. She was equally disturbed by the decision, stating that Republican members of the JBC "are undermining key protections for Coloradans against discrimination. The CCRD is up for sunset review this year, and preemptively trying to defund it is an outrageous move."

The commission is housed within the division of civil rights, part of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA). The vote on the civil rights funding was part of the JBC's Thursday decision-making for DORA's 2018-19 budget.

The vote to table the commission and division's funding split along party lines, with Democrats in favor of funding the agency and Republicans opposed. A deadlocked vote means the funding was not approved.

Senate Republicans have indicated they want to see changes in how commissioners are appointed to the seven-member body as well as changes to agency decision-making.

The commission and division are up for a sunset review in the 2018 legislative session that would reauthorize it to continue its mission. A separate division within DORA, which conducts sunset reviews for state agencies, recommended both be continued for another nine years.

The cost for the two groups is about $2.5 million per year, with $438,000 of that coming from federal funds.

The commission is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case that dates back to 2012, when a same-sex couple sought a wedding cake from the Lakewood bakery. The owner, Jack Phillips, refused, citing his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

The couple took Phillips and his bakery to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled the bakery discriminated against the couple based on their LGBTQ status, prohibited under state law.

Philips appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the couple, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case last December. A ruling is expected in the spring.

Lawmakers and civil rights advocates were quick to weigh in on the JBC decision.

Democratic State Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, a JBC member, told reporters that he believes the issue of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and funding for the commission is related.

Republicans "want to limit what the office of civil rights does," Moreno, who is gay, added. "I don't see how limiting their work benefits anyone in Colorado."

Moreno also pointed out that the JBC budgets to current law, and the civil rights commission and division are currently authorized by state law, so there's no reason not to fund the agency.

One Colorado, the state's leading advocacy organization for LGBTQ rights, also found the news troubling. Executive Director Daniel Ramos said the decision to block 2018-19 funding for the commission and division "sends a very disturbing message about how much they value protecting the civil rights of all Coloradans, including LGBTQ Coloradans. We call on Senate Republicans to restore funding to this vital office as soon as possible."

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and the first African-American lesbian lawmaker in Colorado, said Coloradans "deserve a local remedy and local recourse," and defunding the commission takes that away. The decision also goes around the legislative process and is an abuse of their authority, Herod said.

"Getting caught in the crossfire are Coloradans whose rights are being violated," she added.

Joe Neguse, now a Democratic candidate for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District, formerly served as DORA's executive director. He said today the JBC decision "is politics at its worst. Instead of protecting the civil rights of all Coloradans, several legislators voted to prioritize grandstanding and political gamesmanship. He called on the Republicans on the JBC to "do their job," fund the commission and division and stop playing political games.

The ACLU of Colorado also called on the JBC to reverse course. "It's a terrible move," said Denise Maes, public policy director.  The commission protects Coloradans from unlawful discrimination. By defunding the commission, there's a statement there that perhaps the state need not be so vigilant to stop discrimination." She also said that in bringing up the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, as Sen. Lundberg did in his Facebook post, indicates the Republicans may be retaliating against the commission for their ruling in the case.

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