Business Week: Why Are So Many Counties Trying to Secede From Their States?

51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record
51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record

From Bloomberg Business Week (Claire Suddath)

“It’ll be North Colorado. Or maybe New Colorado,” says Jeffrey Hare, founder of the so-called 51st State Initiative and a resident of Weld County, currently in the northern part of regular Colorado. In November, residents of Weld and 10 other counties will vote to determine if residents are interested in seceding from the state. Hare says he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle and that forming a new state is much more complicated than just redrawing a few borders. New (or North) Colorado would have to come up with a school system, maintain its own roads, and collect taxes—the latter a tricky prospect for a state conceived by Tea Partiers. But Hare is so sick of “those people in Boulder,” as he calls them, that he’s willing to take a stab at it.

He’s not alone. Northern Californians are trying to assemble the new state of Jefferson—again. (They tried in 1941, going so far as to inaugurate a governor.) Last year, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula briefly considered independence from the downstate mitten. And in Maryland, a man named Scott Strzelczyk is leading a movement to allow the five westernmost, Republican-leaning counties to separate from the rest of the state. “Here at the state level, we’re controlled by a single party—Democrats—and we feel we have no other recourse,” he says. “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want to be our own state.”

It’s important to point out that none of these movements are attempts to secede from the United States. They’re not like the dozens of online petitions signed in the wake of President Obama’s re-election that sought to declare independence from America, and which were openly embraced by white nationalist groups. (Secession-happy Texas is keeping its petition alive; it had over 125,000 signatures before the federal shutdown took the petition temporarily offline.) And while the movements that are furthest along, those in Colorado and Maryland, are backed by Tea Partiers (you can find people urging each other to to sign up for the 51st State Initiative on the Tea Party Community website), not every proposed state would be populated with conservatives.

Last year, Arizona’s liberal-leaning Pima County, home to Tucson, tried to declare itself the state of Baja because it didn’t want to be governed by Arizona’s conservative majority. In a twist, the impetus for the Baja movement was a proposed bill that would have allowed Arizona to nullify federal laws it didn’t like; the bill was defeated. Pima was thus trying to secede from Arizona because Arizona was distancing itself from the U.S. Or, as early Baja organizer Paul Eckerstom told the Wall Street Journal at the time: “We actually want to stay in the union. It seems Arizona doesn’t.”[…]

The interesting thing about these new movements isn’t their likelihood of success, but the fact that they constitute blatant attempts at ideological gerrymandering. “In previous state secession movements, there was usually a sense of compromise in the end that often diffused these things,” says Michael Trinklein, author of Lost States, a book about past statehood movements, “but now that we’re so polarized, it’s feeling as if these are movements of last resort.”[…]

Leaders of Colorado’s 51st State Initiative have said they’re modeling their efforts on the Kansas movement. Hare points to a host of issues—Colorado’s alternative energy requirements, water rights, taxes—that compelled him to try breaking away from his home state. “But when we saw the gun control bills that were happening, myself and a couple of other people thought: How can we nullify this? The concept of statehood came out of that—we could bring a proper constitution to the new state,” he explained. A problem is that local voters have already recalled two state senators who proposed the gun control legislation and are in the process of trying to recall a third. So the 51st State Initiative is addressing something that has already been resolved via Colorado’s democratic process.

That’s the difference between the new crop of state secessions and its predecessors. The United States isn’t just divided into red and blue states; it has further split into red and blue counties. Instead of celebrating that together, they reach agreements that are essentially purple, people get angrier and angrier whenever the other color bleeds into their own.

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

Proponents and opponents of the 51st state measure on the Weld County ballot can agree on one thing: North Colorado would be different from what Colorado is now. But those on either side of the issue disagree on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Greeley/Weld County League of Women Voters on Monday night, Weld County commissioners Barbara Kirkmeyer and Sean Conway said they believe a different state would not disenfranchise residents, as they feel our current state legislators do, while Bob Ruyle, a water attorney and a member of the Greeley Water and Sewer Board, and Steve Mazurana, retired professor of political science at the University of Northern Colorado, said a new state would mean new problems.

Education, water, financial feasibility and commissioners’ legal authority to initiate the 51st state movement were whittled down to the finer points, the issues volleying among panelists as more than 200 people moaned and clucked their tongues during the forum at Hensel Phelps Theater at the Union Colony Civic Center.

“Whether this passes or not, the disconnect is a problem,” Conway said.

Mazurana said he wasn’t even sure of that. He said this year’s state legislation demonstrates the ebb and flow of politics, and questioned whether the argument for a 51st state would be a moot point if Republicans dominate the state Legislature in coming years.

“Take it easy,” he said. “This is one legislative session.”

Commissioners countered that this past legislative session was one of the worst they have seen, citing complaints from constituents who wished to testify before bills who were turned away and the rural renewable energy bill and proposed oil and gas regulations as times when commissioners and others imperative to those processes were not invited to speak at the state Capitol.

On a number of points, either side insisted they were in the right:

» On the power of commissioners to initiate the 51st state, Ruyle said that power is not expressly listed in state statute or the county’s home rule charter, which it must be, if commissioners take any action. He said the power to alter or change government lies solely with the citizens, and the initiative must be citizen-led. Kirkmeyer said a provision in the county’s charter allows commissioners to go through a process to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot, which gives them that power. She said commissioners are expressly charged with representing their constituents.

» On financing the new state, Mazurana said the new state would have to purchase UNC, three state parks and three prisons, and pay for a national guard, state infrastructure, state law enforcement and other services. Ruyle said about 83 percent of the new state’s assessed value would come out of Weld County, so the county would be subsidizing the other 10 counties that wish to form North Colorado. He said oil and gas may be helping Weld to thrive economically, but he said he doesn’t have faith in the long-term stability of the industry.

Conway said an I-News Network analysis of the financial aspect of the 51st state, which said the 11 northeastern counties receive more state funding for education and other services than they contribute, left out $115 million that Weld County gives to the state land board, meaning North Colorado actually gives more money to state coffers than it receives. He said the new state’s business philosophy would be similar to that of Delaware, another small state, which has the greatest number of Fortune 500 companies in the country.

» On water issues, Ruyle said a number of things would have to be renegotiated, such as the new state’s compact with Colorado on water use. In the interim, he said the new state could be left with no water rights. Ruyle said the new state would have to get permission from a water court for every acre-foot of water that flows outside of Colorado’s boundaries, at a cost of about $1.5 million per year. Ruyle and Conway differed on the results of a U.S. Supreme Court case that Conway cited as precedent for why Colorado could not completely impede the water received by North Colorado, and he said resolutions of support from Colorado counties on the Western slope would mean hassle-free headwaters for the new state.

» On the cost of tuition, Mazurana and Ruyle said students who were formerly a part of Colorado would have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to the likes of the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. Conway countered that tuition in Wyoming is cheaper for Colorado students to pay out-of-state than to pay for an education at CU and CSU, thanks to the state Legislature’s lack of attention to funding for higher education. Ruyle said part of the problem is Colorado’s TABOR law, which doesn’t allow the legislators as much taxing authority.

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

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