‘North Colorado’ secession plans cool off in favor of a redistricting proposal

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Representatives of 10 Colorado counties that have banded together with the idea of forming the country’s 51st state backed away from that idea Monday in favor of a new proposal that, if successful, would keep the 38th state intact but greatly increase rural areas’ clout in Denver.

Randy Schafer, the Phillips County administrator, laid out a plan for amending the state constitution so that Colorado’s counties would each be represented by a state senator or representative.

Currently, both types of legislators represent population-based districts, meaning that most of them come from the urban corridor along the Front Range. Only a handful represents the vast rural areas that have made headlines recently with plans to secede and form the new state of “North Colorado,” meaning they’re always outnumbered by their urban counterparts.

Schafer said changing the state constitution to require that each county have a representative at the state legislature in one of the chambers would make it more like the U.S. Congress, in which each state has two senators, regardless of its population or area.

“It would give every county a voice, regardless of our size or our political makeup,” he said. “We thought this was a pretty neat concept when we first came across it.”

So did many of the county commissioners who first heard the plan Monday. Speaking in turn, many seemed relieved to have an alternative to secession. Some said they wouldn’t put a secession vote onto their ballots unless their constituents petitioned for it. Others said that even if a vote were held, it might not pass in their jurisdictions.

And others said that the myriad details of forming a new state — including negotiating water agreements and setting up educational facilities and transportation infrastructure — were intimidating.

“Everybody in rural Colorado is frustrated with the state,” said Morgan County Commissioner Brian McCracken. “But there’s a lot more to be considered than just getting it on the ballot. That’s just the very first step. There’s a lot more to look at [in terms of] how things are going to work.”

But changing the constitution to allow for more rural representation will be no cakewalk either, Schafer warned. Amending the constitution requires a statewide vote. The first step would be trying to pass a bill through the Democratic-controlled legislature to refer the question to voters, which many at Monday’s meeting considered to be a doomed proposition from the start.

Failing that, a statewide petition drive could put the question on the ballot.

Even if it is ultimately successful, the measure would conflict with a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which an attempt to redistrict Alabama in a similar way was struck down. The court ruled 8-1 that state legislative districts must be roughly equal based on population.

Schafer thinks it would be worth the court fight, saying the current Supreme Court may be inclined to reverse its earlier decision.

“We think that can be done,” he said, although others voiced the opposite opinion during Monday’s meeting.

Still, the proposal was intriguing enough that the so-called 51st state consortium agreed to pursue it further. Many were pleased with its comparative simplicity and the fact that all counties would be included in the plan.

And everyone seemed happy with the message it would send that rural Colorado was tired of being ignored by urban politicians.

“We’re frustrated at working hard, being good citizens, producing and giving to the state of Colorado, and quite frankly not getting much appreciation and not getting a good return on our investment,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. “That’s what this is about.”

Commissioners will meet in coming weeks with Colorado Counties Inc., their main lobbying group, to continue refining the idea.

As for the plan to secede, it’s not exactly dead, but it’s lost much of its momentum in the face of the alternative proposal. Conway said each county will decide whether to put the idea to its voters.

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Greg Campbell