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The fight over the civil rights commission explained

What you need to know about the commission, why lawmakers want to change it or keep it as is and what happens if Republicans and Democrats can't agree.

A fight is brewing at the Colorado legislature over how the state enforces its anti-discrimination laws.

Republicans want to change how the commission in charge of enforcing those laws works. Democrats want to largely keep things as they are.

Here’s what you need to know:

The fight is about the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It’s a seven-member board appointed by the governor, and its job is to decide whether an employer, landlord or business discriminated against someone for being gay, Muslim, foreign born or a woman.

Basically, they enforce Colorado’s "public accommodation" law.

The commission, which is part of the Division of Civil Rights, was the first entity to rule against Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple back in 2012.

Phillips appealed the commission’s verdict all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision in that case is expected this summer.


Republicans point to the Phillips case as one example of why the commission needs some restructuring.

“We think there needs to be more due process,” Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) told 9NEWS.

The commission can levy fines and force people to change how they run their business. That’s a lot of power to put in seven unelected people, Lundberg said.

He and his fellow Republicans also take issue with how people get their seats on the commission. The governor appoints the commissioners, and the Senate gets to “advise and consent.”

“That broke down last year,” Lundberg said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper kept Heidi Jeanne Hess, an LGBT advocate, on the commission despite the Senate’s vote to block her appointment.

(On a side note: Senate President Kevin Grantham (R-Weld County) is pushing a bill this session that would prevent appointees from continuing to serve on a commission if they are rejected by the Senate.)

Lundberg suggested appointments to the Civil Rights Commission could come from the governor, legislature and judiciary the way they do for other committees like the one that redraws the congressional maps every 10 years.

Finally, Republicans want the division’s decisions to be subject to public records requests, and they want the commission “better reflect” the state by including people with other viewpoints.

“It’s all to try to make the commission do its job more effectively,” Lundberg said.


State Sen. Dominick Moreno (D- Commerce City) told 9NEWS he's willing to listen to any proposals his Republican colleagues have about changing the commission.

"But our baseline is you can't fundamentally change the work of the commission in a way that's going to limit its work," Moreno said.

Moreno's open to the idea of changing who gets to appoint people to the commission, but he's not looking to strip the commission of its ability to levy fines or impose other penalties.

"I think due process exists currently within the commission," Moreno said.

The civil rights division has a team of investigators who research cases and interview the people involved for the commissioners.

"We have made a lot of gains in civil rights in this country, but we know there still is discrimination in the work place," Moreno said. "That shouldn't be taken lightly. That's why it's so important that we fund their work."


The Civil Rights Division, which is where the commission is housed inside state government, is up for a sunset review.

The first hearing for that process is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

A sunset review happens to most government programs every couple of years. It’s basically the time for lawmakers to talk about how a program works and whether any changes are necessary.

But before the review process started, Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee voted against funding the entire division past July 1.

“It wasn’t a no,” Lundberg said. “It was a no, not now.”

He asked to postpone the vote until after the review process finished, but Democrats on the committee called for a vote.

“I am not prepared to vote for funding until I understand what this commission will actually be all about in the coming years,” Lundberg said during the budget meeting.

Rep. Dave Young (D-Weld County) asked the committee to fund the division, arguing that they haven’t held up funding for other divisions during their sunset reviews.

“The JBC doesn’t pick and choose ones to hold off or move forward,” Young said. “We go ahead and pass the line item detail and see what happens with the sunset review process.”

Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Summit County) took it a step further and said voting against funding “sends a signal that we’re not interested in continuing” to enforcement law that prohibit discrimination based on race, sex or national origin.


Colorado’s legislature is divided. Democrats control the House of Representatives, and Republicans control the Senate.

That means the two parties are going to have to find common ground before the session ends.

If they don’t and the division goes unfunded, it would essentially stop the enforcement of Colorado’s public accommodation law.

People could still take their claims to the federal government, which has its own version of the law, but certain protections not included in the federal regulations would essentially be lost.

"I am optimistic that we will find common ground," Moreno said. "I am going to believe that my Republican colleagues are operating in good faith."

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