Rebellious Colorado counties move forward with plans to secede

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Representatives of 10 rural Colorado counties met Monday in the sleepy plains town of Akron, about a half an hour from the Kansas border, to advance a plan that has been both hailed and ridiculed in recent weeks: A bid to split from Colorado and form the country’s 51st state.

Eye-rolling critics have dubbed the state-to-be “Weldistan,” after the county leading the charge and alluding to the heavily conservative values of the northeast region considering secession.

Proponents have called it an inevitable result of what they say is a loss of representation in Denver, where Democrats have controlled state government and, in the minds of many rural Coloradans, ignored them in favor of liberal, urban interests.

Questions about how to proceed with such a rare initiative as starting a new state covered a wide spectrum at Monday’s meeting. They ranged from whether to include like-minded counties in Nebraska and Kansas to how to ensure, if the effort is successful, that urban areas in the newly formed state wouldn’t also begin to ignore less-populated areas and become yet another out-of-touch capital.

But for all the uncertainty, there was one common thread: barely veiled anger at how rural counties perceive they’ve been treated by the Democrat-controlled state legislature this year.

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway called it “a nightmare session.”

“This was the worse legislative session I’ve ever seen,” he said, “how they treated people, how they called bills up on the same day without giving people a chance to testify.”

Colorado has made national headlines this year in having passed a full slate of progressive laws, including tough new gun-control laws, new rights for illegal immigrants, regulations for legal marijuana, and many other controversial pieces of legislation.

Several commissioners said the back-breaker was Senate Bill 252, a new measure that requires rural electrical cooperatives to double the amount of renewable energy they offer to customers by 2020. Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed it into law, despite heavy lobbying to veto it. The bill’s opponents say it will increase rural customers’ electricity bills by mandating what they say are unrealistic — and expensive — goals.

Many of the more than two dozen county commissioners attending the meeting noted that SB 252 was their final straw.

“[Senate Bill] 252 is a perfect example of where they rammed it down our throat,” said Yuma County Commissioner Trent Bushner. “They turned a blind eye to satisfy [Hickenlooper’s] buddies in the environmental groups.”

“I’m excited about what we can learn from this and where we can take it,” he said, “but quite honestly, I want this to be a shot across the bow for them to start listening to us.”

Like some others, Bushner wasn’t convinced that a statehood bid would be successful, even though Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker said that it was a fairly straightforward process — at least from a legal perspective.

The first step, he said, was for each county’s citizens to vote to officially exclude their county from the state of Colorado. Once those votes were conducted, counties that passed the secession measure — assuming they all shared a border — would ask voters from all of Colorado to amend the Colorado Constitution to remove their combined area from the state, and require that the state legislature submit a formal request that Congress recognize its 51st member.

If that statewide measure passes, and Congress agrees to enter it into the union, “North Colorado” — or whatever official name is eventually chosen — will be created.

Not all the commissioners were sold, with many expressing concern that there hasn’t been a groundswell of organized citizen support for the idea, even though many have told them to “go for it.”

“Do I think this has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing?” Bushner asked. “Not really.”

But others weren’t so pessimistic.

“I’ve heard the phrase ‘snowball’s chance in hell,’” said Weld County Commissioner Douglas Rademacher. “I’m looking forward to the day hell freezes over.”

“North Colorado” has a lot going for it, according to Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, noting that the 10 counties in the consortium account for 10 percent of Colorado’s assessed value, in terms of its agricultural and oil and gas production.

The area, she said, accounts for 40 percent of the assessed value of the state’s oil and gas.

Overall, she said the counties looking to secede give to the state’s treasury more than they get in return.

Regardless of the many yet-to-be-answered questions, the group will move forward, agreeing to invite to the next meeting representatives of other counties — both inside and outside Colorado — who have shown interest in forming a new state.

Conway said the next steps include hiring a professor from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley to do an in-depth economic assessment of the counties in question, and to work on developing ballot language to take to voters in November.

To make the next election, commissioners have to move fast: The deadline to submit ballot measures is in early August.

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