Colorado Legislature greets new era

DENVER - One handshake brought to an end a bitter year in Colorado politics.

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty banged his gavel one last time to call the House of Representatives to order for 2013 on Wednesday morning.

Last May, McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, wielded the same gavel to kill legislation to create civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, even though supporters had the votes to pass it in the House.

Democrats vowed to put McNulty out of a job, and they targeted vulnerable Republicans like Ignacio's J. Paul Brown.

Durango Democrat Mike McLachlan beat Brown. It was one of five new seats for Democrats - plenty to make Denver Rep. Mark Ferrandino Colorado's first gay speaker of the House.

A good-natured McNulty congratulated Ferrandino with a handshake Wednesday morning and then took his seat among the Republican rank-and-file.

The handshake also ushered in a much different era in the House, both in style and substance.

Ferrandino sponsored last year's ill-fated civil unions bill, and his husband, Greg Wertsch, sat in the front row to watch him take the reins of power.

Ferrandino had kind words for McNulty and called him his friend.

"Some might say we've had our moments, but I know how deeply you care about this state, and I respect the work you've done," Ferrandino said.

The civil unions bill is sure to pass now, bringing same-sex couples many rights similar to marriage.

Ferrandino and Wertsch have a year-old foster-daughter, Lila, who has been toddling around the Capitol the last few weeks.

"You get a different perspective on life when you're changing diapers in the Speaker's office," Ferrandino said.

He began his first speech as the leader of the House by calling for an end to the anti-government rhetoric of the last few years.

"When a wildfire roars into Colorado Springs or a madman opens fire in an Aurora theater, our government responds. In those urgent and impossible moments, it is our government - in the form of police officers, firefighters and paramedics - that is first on the scene," Ferrandino said.

The Legislature will stay focused on jobs bills, he said, but he also acknowledged that this year will bring an emotional debate about guns.

"The Second Amendment is sacrosanct. But so is the First. It is our right - and the time is right - to speak openly and honestly about how we can curb the gun violence that costs our communities far too many sons and daughters," he said, drawing applause from Democrats and silence from Republicans.

The conversation will include mental health and gun control, he said.

Republicans find themselves in a 37-28 minority in the House, and their new leader asked for their voices to be heard this year. Last year, the House passed the budget on a near-unanimous 64-1 vote, said Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

Waller focused his remarks on opportunity through education, and he said Democrats and Republicans can find common ground in giving Coloradans the chance to go to good schools and colleges.

Waller called for cuts to the prison budget, which has been rising despite a falling crime rate.

"Imagine how much better a place this world would be if we spent fewer dollars on prison beds and, in turn, used those dollars for desks in the classroom," Waller said.

Legislators will hear from Gov. John Hickenlooper today for his third State of the State address. They will get to work in earnest next week on their 120-day session.