When Democrats claimed control of both houses of the Colorado General Assembly in last November’s elections, there was little doubt that two priority issues would be enacted once the legislature convened. Just over halfway through the 120-day session, bills to establish civil unions and to allow illegal immigrants who matriculated at Colorado high schools to receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in our state have passed.
While the bills’ outcomes were never really in doubt, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t drama in passing them. There was extensive debate in both chambers on both bills and emotional testimony before the committees where members of the public came forward to make their pleas for the bills’ passage or defeat.
When it was all said and done, both bills passed, with all of the Democrats in the legislature voting for them and the vast majority of Republicans voting against. It should be noted that Cheri Gerou, a Republican state representative from Evergreen, voted for both bills. While these votes were pretty easy for Democrats, Gerou’s actions were gutsy and show her willingness to make tough votes.
Last year’s legislative session ended on a low note when the civil unions bill died on the calendar, as it wasn’t allowed to be heard on the second-to-last night of the session despite the fact that there were sufficient votes for it to pass. The issue became a rallying cry for Democrats during the election, and some pundits have argued that it was the primary issue that led to the Democratic takeover of the House. While it was an important and emotional issue, I believe the superior Democratic ground game and the sophisticated and comprehensive campaign run by President Obama was what led Democrats to turn last year’s 33-32 deficit in the House into a 37-28 advantage now.
Polling, particularly among younger voters, has shown increasing support for equal rights and opportunities based on sexual orientation. It is likely that either through court challenges or a constitutional amendment, civil unions will be a short-term phenomenon that will soon be replaced by marriage equality.
While some people have called providing in-state tuition to undocumented children who grew up in our school systems a reward for breaking the law, I’ve always seen it as a continuing investment in our collective future. The vast majority of the kids affected by the new law were brought here as young children, were educated in the K-12 system at public expense, and whose ability to become contributing members of our society and economy was inhibited by a policy that kept them from meeting their potential through higher educational opportunities. The bill requires them to apply for U.S. citizenship.
There is still much to be done in the second half of the legislative session, but the drama over passage of civil unions and in-state tuition has been put to bed.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.