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Political battle brewing over Civil Rights Commission re-authorization

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DENVER -

Partisan politics are flaring up in Denver over the future of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Democrats in the state legislature, along with dozens of civil rights groups, staged a rally on the west steps of the Capitol protesting a move by Republicans on the budget committee last week to withhold funding for the commission until lawmakers reauthorize the commission's legislation.

Republican Senators want to change the bill with regards to how people are appointed to the board. Democrats and activists say their colleagues shouldn't be playing politics with such an important watchdog agency.

"We have shown time and time again that when there are attacks on our rights, the people will show up and the people will be heard," Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran told the crowd.

Her sentiments were echoed by Rep. Leslie Herod who noted Colorado's long history of supporting Civil Rights Issues.

"Coloradoans have enjoyed protections against unlawful discrimination since 1951, 13 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed," Herod said.

Event emcee Daniel Ramos, the Executive Director of LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado, said funding for the Commission will expire July 1 unless lawmakers take action.

"Here we are, Black History Month, February 2018 and some politicians are openly questioning the existence of the Civil Rights Division and wondering whether civil rights need to be protected," Ramos said.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Republican State Senator Robert Gardner of Colorado Springs. "I have every intention as the sponsor of this bill to ensure that Colorado's Civil Rights Commission operates, that it operates in a fair and balanced manner."

He said the biggest issue that Senate Republicans have with the current legislation is that only the Governor can appoint members to the board. Last year, the Senate took the unusual step of rejecting the re-appointment of commissioner Heidi Jeanne Hess on a party-line vote.

Hess is a political organizer for One Colorado and Gardner said his fellow members in the Senate didn't believe Hess could be impartial.

"There was concern about that particular member and whether her service on the commission was constructive and balanced," Gardner said.

He went on to say that Governor John Hickenlooper kept Hess on the board for a full year before appointing a new member. Gardner and the Republicans want the legislature to have a greater say in picking future commissioners. 

The re-authorization bill was introduced in a House Committee immediately following the rally.

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