Colorado House

Members of the State House are sworn in during the opening day of the 2017 Colorado State Legislature at the State Capitol in Denver. 

A bill allowing unionized state employees to collectively bargain for pay, benefits and terms of employment cleared the House on Feb. 14 but not without fierce opposition from Republicans.

House Bill 1153 was approved on a preliminary vote and will head to a final vote in the House on Tuesday. The bill is expected to pass on a party-line vote, given the votes on dozens of amendments.

House lawmakers debated for nearly four hours on Friday and for an additional hour after that for recorded votes on amendments.

The day also featured delaying tactics by House Republicans, who asked for bills to be read at length. Out of the seven bills debated on Friday, Republicans asked for four of them to be read in their entirety, even bills co-sponsored by fellow Republicans.

The “why” depended on whom you asked: frustration over a package of anti-LGBTQ bills rejected by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee the night before; or, more notably, that Democrats have scheduled debate on the death penalty bill on Feb. 20, the day President Trump is scheduled to visit Colorado Springs.

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, on Thursday called the Feb. 20 scheduling a "diabolical and underhanded move by Democrats," but said House Democrats "will be sorely disappointed because I will give up my VIP tickets to the President’s rally and instead support the President in spirit while I filibuster this bill until I’m physically unable to do so.”

In a discussion of a Republican amendment to require the union to obtain permission annually to withdraw membership dues, Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, said he had been a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union when he was working at Safeway during high school.

That also elicited an admission from House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, that he, too, had been a UFCW member as a head clerk at a grocery store. Neville said he went through the process to ensure his dues did not go to political purposes and causes he found “nefarious.” His admission earned him a handshake from Melton, who called him a union brother, but “I’m glad you saw the light and got out of the union,” from Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells.

Asst. Minority Leader Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, called that amendment one step toward transparency, an issue that came up frequently during the debate.

Other Republican amendments included:

  • Challenging the use of membership dues for political purposes or candidate campaigns,
  • Adding protections to state employees who choose not to join the union,
  • Allowing negotiations to be held in public,
  • Notifying employees that union membership is voluntary, and
  • Barring the use of membership dues for organized crime.

That last amendment, offered by Williams, was from his concern that unions have historically been associated with organized crime. That drew a rebuke from bill co-sponsor Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who said she found the suggestion offensive.

However, some of those amendments did garner several “yes” votes from House Democrats. The organized crime amendment won support from five House Democrats; the ban on using membership dues for political purposes gained “yes” votes from eight Democrats.

Seven members of the House — four Republicans and three Democrats — were absent on Friday.

Democrats offered little in the debate other than to tell their members to vote against the amendments. Esgar and Melton took on much of the bill’s defense. 

Rep. Sonya Jaquez-Lewis, D-Longmont, did share the story of a friend, a state employee who was a psychiatrist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute. The work environment, including required overtime, got to be too much, she said. And her wife, a nurse who worked for a women’s prison, turned down an opportunity to become a state employee because of the overtime requirements.

“We’re going to continue to lose health care professionals,” Jaquez-Lewis warned.

“What I heard over and over again is our overall love for state employees, from both sides of the aisle,” Esgar said at the end of the debate. She pointed out that “28,000 state employees are relying on us. One in eight state employees live in Pueblo,” and some have been working on the collective bargaining issue for nearly 12 years.

“I come from a community proud to call itself a union town, and that means community," she said. "Let’s treat them right. They’re not Mafia or union bosses ... and they deserve our utmost respect.”

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