Colorado civil unions session to start next week

DENVER (AP) — Same-sex unions will take center stage in Colorado next week, with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper taking the unusual and expensive step of calling lawmakers back to work, saying Thursday, "This is civil rights."

Hickenlooper outlined the scope of the special session, which he said will begin Monday, instructing lawmakers to focus on several issues including a divisive proposal to set a standard on what's considered too high to drive.

But it's clear that a Democrat-backed civil union proposal that died on the House floor this week was the driving force behind the governor's call.

"This is people's legal rights," said Hickenlooper, a supporter of the plan. "It's supposed to be guaranteed in our constitution, right?"

The debate over gay rights issues reached new heights this week, as President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage Wednesday. On Tuesday, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment that bars civil unions and defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

More than a dozen states allow either gay marriage or civil unions, including several that moved to pass such laws this year.

Civil unions in Colorado would grant gay couples rights similar to married couples, including the allowing partners to make medical decisions for each other. The protections also would enhance parental and inheritance rights.

The civil unions bill is among seven measures to be considered during the special session, which will cost taxpayers about $23,500 per day. It's unclear how long the session will last.

The other legislation includes a proposal that would set a legal impairment standard that could be enforced in cases where police say drivers are under the influence of marijuana and should not be behind the wheel.

Another bill involves $70 million worth of water projects, some of which are aimed at easing drought concerns.

Legislators will also take up an unemployment insurance plan and a referred measure asking voters to repeal three laws deemed unconstitutional, including a 1992 voter-approved measure forbidding cities from passing anti-discrimination laws to protect gay people.

Hickenlooper called the session after a politically-charged fight on the House floor Tuesday. Republican leaders refused to debate the civil unions bill that Democrats said had enough support to pass. Gay rights advocates in the gallery chanted, "Shame on you!"

The Republican move killed the bill along with several others as a key deadline expired.

Hickenlooper said Wednesday he had decided to call lawmakers into special session, saying there was an "overwhelming need to discuss civil unions." His announcement came the same day Obama said gay couples should be allowed to marry.

Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said "it could quite possibly be more than coincidence." He said the governor had succumbed to pressure from Obama allies in Colorado.

Hickenlooper denied the suggestion.

"You gotta be kidding me, really?" he said. "No one from the Obama campaign has been around."

Republicans hold a voting edge in the House that allows them broad discretion to control which decisions are considered — power they can still wield during a special session. As a result, civil unions could face a tough first committee hearing.

McNulty hinted as much when he called next week "a reset."

Hickenlooper said he didn't want to speculate on what McNulty might do.

McNulty said he and fellow Republicans want to talk about improving the economy, adding that that's what people talk about at their kitchen tables.

"Our focus is on job creation and economic recovery," he said.

Hickenlooper agreed people are concerned about the economy, "But I suspect Frank might be surprised to hear of how many kitchen tables people are discussing people's legal rights and civil unions."

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