DENVER – Future funding for a Colorado state commission tasked with protecting residents from discrimination was put into question Thursday, when the state Joint Budget Committee deadlocked on a vote that would have renewed money for the panel.
Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, wrote on Facebook that the decision came down to a split, party-line vote in which the funding discussion for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was tabled.
“My argument against approving their funding today is we need to wait and see what the legislature does with the renewal of the law authorizing the commission, which is up for sunset review in this session,” Lundberg wrote.
He also pointed out that the commission is at the heart of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which the U.S. Supreme Court heard in December and is expected to issue a decision on later this year.
The commission is under the state’s Division of Civil Rights, which is part of the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, whose funding was being debated Thursday.
Republicans, including Lundberg and Sen. Kent Lambert, R-El Paso County, said they simply tabled the vote Thursday so they could wait to see what is contained in a sunset review of the commission, which is being sponsored in this year’s legislative session by House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, before voting to extend its funding. The measure has yet to be publicly unveiled.
"We want to have a civil rights division fully funded to do the things that they're actually chartered to do. This group of people has not been doing that. I think we will find out from the Supreme Court of the United States that they have exceeded their authority," said Lambert.
Duran, meanwhile, called the committee’s vote “outrageous” and said the commission was much-needed in the state.
"Why would they not want to ensure that there are workplaces in this state that are free from discrimination?" said Duran.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office was equally displeased at the decision.
“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,” said Jacque Montgomery, the governor’s spokesperson, in a statement to Denver7. “Refusing to fund the commission is puzzling at best, and send the wrong message to Coloradans – and businesses looking to move to Colorado – on the state’s commitment to equal rights.”
One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy group based in Denver, was also unhappy.
“This decision by JBC Republicans to block funding the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Civil Rights Division sends a very disturbing message about how much they value protecting the civil rights of all Coloradans, including LGBTQ Coloradans,” said its executive director, Daniel Ramos. “We call on Senate Republicans to restore funding to this vital office as soon as possible.”
The commission has been questioned by some conservatives after it ruled against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, saying he discriminated against a same-sex couple when he denied their requests he make a cake for their wedding, which is against state law. Some have also questioned how people are appointed to the commission.
Philips has appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a decision is expected this spring.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, who was the first LGBTQ African-American in the state assembly, said the decision about funding made by Republicans was “in direct response to the cake shop decision.”
“The commission is essential in enforcing and protecting those whose civil rights have been violated,” she added in a series of tweets. “Frankly, in the Trump Era, we need protections at the state level now more than ever. I am appalled.”
The commission is funded through the fiscal year, which ends June 30. The funding could still be agreed upon in coming months.
This is a developing story; stay posted for updates.