2014 Colorado legislation: Ag leaders hope to bridge the Ag-Urban divide this session #COleg

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

From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Candace Krebs):

While leaders meeting recently in Loveland considered last year’s general assembly a failure and even a disaster, they could at least take solace knowing they made headway in getting their concerns heard. A nationally publicized secession campaign in northeastern Colorado gained enough traction to help unseat two prominent Democratic legislators and forced a third to resign in order to keep the seat under Democratic control.

National media has tended to portray gun legislation as the biggest source of the rift. Clearly, gun control laws are unpopular among farmers, many of whom hunt or live in remote areas where local law enforcement is hindered from responding quickly to security concerns.

But ag leaders who met in mid-December seemed to indicate that House Bill 252, mandating the state get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, had driven the deepest wedge.
Rep. Lori Saine, a House ag committee member from the Fort Lupton area and one of several lawmakers who met with farmers during a legislative town hall event, described it as an “injustice” that would end up boosting electricity rates by 20 percent in rural areas while having little or no impact on Front Range utilities.

Greg Brophy, of Wray, a state senator and Republican candidate for governor, advocated the repeal of 252, saying it needed to be eliminated before any money was sunk into meeting the new requirements.

Among the bill’s criticisms is that it does not include hydropower as a renewable energy source. Hydropower makes up a significant portion of the energy portfolio for rural electric cooperatives, and hopes are widespread that further hydropower development can be piggybacked onto infrastructural improvements needed following the August floods.

Others questioned whether the new bill would actually contribute to a cleaner environment.
Randy Traxler, a wheat farmer from Otis, pointed out that coal is still being mined in the West, only now it’s being exported to China, a country where pollution controls are lax…

Rep. Fischer, a Democrat from Fort Collins, is chairman of the House ag committee.

“My sense is agriculture is very well represented at the legislature, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into total agreement on all of these issues,” he said at one point.
However, he added, there does appear to be an urban-rural “disconnect.”

“I think it’s real, and I think it’s something the state needs to address,” he said during a panel wrap-up.

His statements drew a compliment from Wray’s Brophy, who sits on the state’s Senate ag committee.

“I’ve watched you really grow into your role as committee chairman,” Brophy said to Fischer, recalling how his House colleague went from sponsoring the infamous “tractor tax” targeting heavy equipment emissions in 2010 to backing important water conservation legislation this year to study groundwater management alternatives along the South Platte River.

Brophy called it “the most significant water bill of the year for farmers.”

More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

51st State Initiative: ‘If anything, I actually think it built up walls’ — Mark Ferrandino

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

From The Greeley Tribune (T.M. Fasano):

Let the dialogue begin about solving the problems of Colorado’s urban/rural political divide. Or not. After the 51st state initiative failed in Weld County on Nov. 5 by 56 percent to 44 percent, Weld commissioners Sean Conway and Barbara Kirkmeyer said the effort to secede from Colorado started dialogue around the state regarding rural counties’ needs not being considered by lawmakers in the Denver-metro area.

“If the entire effort was to send a message, message received,” Conway said. “I think we have kick-started a very important dialogue that I look forward to participating in as we move forward. We’re not going away.”

Colorado House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, though, has a different opinion.

“If anything, I actually think it built up walls,” Ferrandino said in a phone interview from Denver. “I have known Sean for a while. He’s always welcome in my office, but doing this type of stuff doesn’t build bridges. It puts up walls. Saying, ‘We just want to be a different state,’ doesn’t say, ‘We want to work together to find the right policies for this state.’”

Ferrandino said Denver legislators won’t shut out rural Weld officials because of the 51st state effort. But, he added, “there’s a group now who are seen I think by some as more out of touch, especially when Commissioner Conway is the one pushing it and then his county doesn’t even vote for it. I think he’s out of touch with his own voters. If he’s supposed to be advocating for his constituents and he’s supposed to have a pulse on his constituents, then you would think he’d be able to get more support than that. He should talk to some of his other constituents who voted against his measure.”

Ferrandino added that having a meaningful discussion is important and he vows to be part of that, but he believes the 51st state issue was perceived by many across the state as “throwing a tantrum.”

“That’s not the right process,” he said. “We have a process in place, and we should use that process. I’m glad to see that it didn’t pass because we have a fundamental belief in our democratic process. You organize and you work to elect people who will agree with you. You don’t just say, ‘We’re going to take our toys and go home.’ I think it is a small group of people who are not happy with what’s going on and trying to make political hay out of it.”

WHAT NOW?

The big question now is: What can be done to get Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Democratic-dominated legislature to be more attentive to the concerns and needs of rural Colorado?

“We understand that some rural areas still feel under-represented and are not being heard. We remain committed to listening more and working with local communities all across Colorado,” Gov. Hickenlooper said in an email response Friday.

Eric Brown, director of communications for the governor, said Hickenlooper will continue to reach out to Weld County and other rural areas.

“The vote in Weld County doesn’t change our intent to continue talking to residents there or in other counties,” Brown said. “The governor held community meetings this fall on the eastern plains, in southern Colorado and on the Western Slope — and he’s been in Weld County four times in the past two months.”

Conway said the county commissioners began the journey in June with the recognition that the political divide exists, and it’s not going away.

“I think we’re going to be at the Legislature in January looking for ways to do this. We’re going to be engaging with our state legislators who, quite frankly, have been AWOL,” Conway said.

Even though 56 percent of the voters (more than 36,260) voted against the 51st state, Conway takes solace in the fact that 44 percent (28,107 yes votes) wanted a change.

“Clearly, there’s frustration out there that needs to be addressed,” Conway said. “Do we really think the governor would be saying, ‘I’m going to come to Weld County more often. That I’m going to listen more. That I’ve got to lean in more. I’ve got to have more of a dialogue here,’ if we hadn’t had this discussion? I doubt it.”

The Divide Goes Beyond Denver

If you ask Conway, the political divide between rural and urban areas isn’t just about the Denver-metro lawmakers. Conway called out Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, as being part of the problem.

“I think we accomplished a lot in the last few months in terms of opening up this dialogue, getting attention at the state capitol, getting the attention of legislators, including some of our own legislators in Weld County who were, quite frankly, part of the problem,” Conway said. “When you have a Dave Young, who votes against oil and gas bills that are absolutely paramount to Weld County. I want to see if he’s going to listen more. Is he going to engage more? I couldn’t get a meeting last year during the legislative session with Rep. Young. Is he going to become an active participant in this dialogue? Does he recognize there’s a problem out there?”

In response to Conway’s comments, Young said he’s had numerous interactions with Conway.

“I’m a little disappointed that he would say that he tried to set up a meeting with me and that he couldn’t get it done,” Young said. “I met with all five commissioners, at their request, after the flooding occurred to really get a sense of what was going on in the county and tell them what I was working on. I make myself extremely available. He has attended my town hall meetings that I’ve had. I’m a little surprised that he would say that I’m unavailable.”

Young said his job is to represent the people in his district.

“There are other representatives who represent other parts of northern Colorado that are primarily rural. My district, I don’t know if you really can call it urban but I don’t think it would be called rural,” Young said. “I know from lots of conversations with people in my district that we’re very sensitive to the issues of rural folks. Our economy in Weld County is driven primarily by agriculture, and that we need to really look out for the concerns of the ag community. Certainly, we’ve gotten economic benefits from the energy sector, as well, and oil and gas. I’m trying to work pretty carefully with them as well to make sure that we balance the needs of our economy and the need to make sure people’s health and safety are protected.”

ANOTHER PROPOSAL FOR RURAL AREAS

Kirkmeyer said a positive thing that came out of the 51st state initiative was the Phillips County plan which would set representation throughout the state based on geography rather than population.

“That is something we will continue to work on and push,” Kirkmeyer said. “This is just the first chapter.”

The Phillips County plan would base either the state House or Senate representation on area instead of population, similar to Congress in which the House of Representatives is based on population, but the Senate has two senators from every state no matter the population.

“We look forward to working with those counties who put this on the ballot. We have been working on this Phillips County idea, which came out of this,” Conway said. “Without this discussion, we would never have come up with this Phillips County idea. I think that’s gaining momentum. Quite frankly, I think that potentially could be the solution out there. We’ll see as we proceed forward.”

Ferrandino said it’s his understanding that based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Phillips County plan would be unconstitutional.

“Everyone I talked to and all of our non-partisan legal staff seems to think the court is pretty clear,” he said. “While I understand the idea around it, if you do it based on counties, there are counties that have a few thousand people and giving them more representation might be a worthwhile goal, but the over 600,00 people who live in Denver, who I represent over 10 percent of them, losing their representation is a problem and making them have less of a voice is not a fair way either.”

Ferrandino said there has been division in the state before, but not to the point of trying to form a new state.

“Every state goes through that. Colorado is changing both demographically and politically over the last couple of decades, and that’s going to continue,” Ferrandino said. “Anytime change happens, there are always people who try to stop change and that causes issues.”

John Straayer, a political analyst and political science professor for 47 years at Colorado State University, said the Phillips County plan is a non-starter because of the Reynolds vs. Sims 1964 Supreme Court case that ruled that all districts in any state legislature must be equal in population.

“The case law is very settled on that matter,” Straayer said. “Then there was one specific to Colorado, and it just blows my mind that nobody seems to have looked at it or paid attention to it. That followed Reynolds v. Sims the same year and the case is called Lucas v. Colorado. The peculiar thing for me through all of this is how in the world does this talk about the Phillips plan keeps going and going and going without some very clear recognition that it’s going to fly in the face of settled law, and that law has been settled now for half a century. You can’t do it. It’s unconstitutional.”

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

Young agrees there are some urban/rural issues to discuss, but he thinks most issues are more complicated than that.

“I’m not sure I saw solutions being brought forward through the whole conversation on the 51st state, but we have issues around water that are of concern to everybody in the state,” Young said. “Agriculture uses 84 percent of our water, and they’re already claiming that there are impending shortages. If agriculture is affected, we’re all affected. It’s a complicated situation that we need to work together to resolve.

“Education is an issue that’s complicated. That cuts across urban versus rural. We’ve got children all across the state in small or large communities that need better access to education and quality education.”

Young agrees that some people don’t feel as if they have a voice at the table, which to him sounds like a communication problem.

“It’s of concern to me when people say they want to be heard, but then they want to isolate or separate themselves from those they expect to have listen to them,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to be an effective solution.”

He added, “I think if you feel like you’re not being heard that you should be working harder to make sure you’re heard, and to me separating or seceding from the state has the opposite effect. I want to say without equivocation that I am certainly willing to work with others, whether they be Republicans or Democrats or other parties, to be part of the process of coming up with solutions. We have to craft solutions that work for all Coloradans.”

Ferrandino said there is a shift in population happening nationwide with more people moving to urban and suburban areas.

“That has implications, but when you look at the Flood (Disaster Study) Committee, it’s being chaired by a Republican (Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley) and Democrat (Young), both from Weld County,” Ferrandino said. “I think people in urban areas understand the issues and try to understand the issues in rural areas, and rural areas try to understand the issues in urban areas. They’re different, and we have to balance both of those. But we’re all one state and we have to look out for the best interests of the entire state.”

Ferrandino believes it’s vital to have an open-door policy and listen to everyone.

“It doesn’t mean you always agree, but everyone has to have the right to have their voice heard,” Ferrandino said. “A lot of people who say we won’t listen never come down to talk to us. It’s funny that Sean says we don’t listen when he’s always welcome to call me and always welcome to come and have a meeting with me, and he has had meetings with me. The best policies are when people sit around the table and discuss things in a meaningful way, that they understand that they’re not going to get everything that they want. A 51st state strategy is about getting everything you want. It’s saying. “We don’t want to compromise.’ It’s kind of like the Republicans in D.C. who shut down the government. ‘We don’t want to negotiate. We want our way or no way at all.’ ”

Straayer thinks the debate will continue between rural versus urban residents.

“The grievances that some folks have felt being slighted perhaps or not having their voice heard adequately in the legislature, I think, that concern will probably continue,” Straayer said. “There will be continued efforts to press the rural message and the rural agenda. The fact of the matter is that the people live on the Front Range and the urban area. That’s where political clout is. I think if the rural areas that lean heavily Republican want to have their concerns addressed more effectively, they’ve got to get more Republicans elected.”

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

The 51st State Initiative: Weld County rural-urban divide issue overblown?

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

From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):

If Greeley residents had not voted in last week’s election, the 51st state initiative still would have been shot down by Weld County voters, according to a breakdown of ballots provided by the Weld County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Without Greeley voters included, 52 percent of Weld County voters would have chosen not to move forward with seceding from the state of Colorado, versus 48 percent who voted for the measure.

The final count on the 51st state question was 56 percent of Weld County voters against secession, compared to 44 percent in support. In Greeley, voters strongly rejected the measure 67 percent to 33 percent.

Some say the disparity between the way Greeley and the rest of the county voted points to a difference in values. Weld County commissioners last week said they feel the rural-urban divide also exists within the county. Others say the fact that Greeley voters rejected the 51st state by a wider margin has nothing to do with a disconnect. They point to the fact that the rest of Weld County also voted against the measure as reason to argue the rural-urban divide issue is overblown. Critics say Weld County commissioners may have a disconnect with the rest of their electorate.

None of Weld County’s five commissioners responded to repeated requests from The Tribune seeking comment regarding how the county voted on the 51st state initiative. But commissioners said after Election Day that they put the question to a vote specifically to see what their electorate thought of secession.

Commissioners said they would honor the vote of the people and would not move forward with seceding from the state, but they vowed to continue to fight for rural interests at the state level. They said the vote was still a success in the sense that a message was sent to state legislators and the governor that a substantial portion of people in rural Colorado feel they have lost their voices.

“I think we have to be careful in saying that because they rejected the vote, there isn’t a problem,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said last week.

Commissioners also sent a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office saying they would like to find a time for him to meet with Ault, Fort Lupton, Tri-Town and Evans residents before the 2014 legislative session.

“We received the Weld County commissioners’ letter and are reviewing the governor’s upcoming schedule to find more opportunities for the governor to visit Weld and other rural counties,” said Eric Brown, spokesman for the governor’s office, in a statement.

He said Hickenlooper was in Weld County on Sept. 16, 22, and 23 and on Oct. 23, and has made an effort to visit with all Coloradans.

Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, who has served as a state lawmaker, said he doubts the state Legislature is any more divided today than it was when he was a representative.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Norton said of the 51st state vote. “It just means that people don’t want it.”

Jeffrey Hare, a founder of the 51st state initiative and its spokesman, said he feels there is a disconnect between Greeley and the rest of the county.

“I would say that it is a little unfortunate that the city of Greeley has forgotten its agricultural roots,” Hare said.

He said he feels the fact 43 percent of Weld voters supported the initiative makes it a “resounding success.” Secession is still a new idea to many people, he said, but 43 percent is a strong plurality on which to build for a renewed secession effort in 2014.

Hare said the five counties that did vote for the initiative — Kit Carson, Washington, Phillips, Yuma and Cheyenne counties — will meet Monday to discuss their next steps in the movement.

While it was possible to track how the city of Greeley voted versus the rest of the county, other communities were not as easily identified. Ballots were not separated by precinct, but by blocks for different districts that held an election this year, said Rudy Santos, elections manager for the Weld County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.

Hare’s suggestion that Greeley has lost touch with its agricultural roots was refuted by local officials.

Sarah MacQuiddy, president of the Greeley Chamber of Commerce, said the city is anchored on the east and west by symbols of Weld County’s agricultural prosperity, with a JBS USA office to the west and Leprino Foods to the east.

“I still believe people in Greeley very much so understand our agrarian roots and appreciate the fact that we are an agricultural county, and appreciate that economic impact,” MacQuiddy said.

Steve Mazurana, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Northern Colorado who opposed the 51st state initiative, said he sees the differences between Greeley and rural areas of the county as a simple disparity in needs and behaviors. But he said that doesn’t stretch into a difference in ideas and values. For example, Greeley and Windsor residents probably lock the doors to their homes during the day. But that doesn’t necessarily point to a difference in values compared to rural areas, where the practice may be to leave them unlocked. That’s a difference in how residents are dealing with their surroundings, which is a fact of life in any state or county, he said. Mazurana said he feels there are just as many rural residents who are unwilling to accept incoming urban ideas and values as there are urban dwellers who rural residents say are attacking their way of life.

Critics say commissioners are elected by all who live in Weld, including municipalities, and a dedication to only rural needs is a disconnect between commissioners and their electorate.

But most of Weld County commissioners’ control is over unincorporated parts of the county, meaning they are rightly more sensitive to the needs of rural areas, Mazurana said.

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

51st State Initiative: Advocates are now looking to legislation and mutual respect to fix the urban-rural divide

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

From The Denver Post (Monte Whaley):

Proponents of a failed move to secede from Colorado say they will now look to the legislature for help in giving their counties more political clout.

“The issue has not gone away for us,” Phillips County Administrator Randy Schafer said. “We have no voice in how this state is run and we will still try to rectify that.”

Eleven rural Colorado counties voted Tuesday on the question of whether their commissioners should proceed with plans to create a 51st state. Phillips County was one of five counties where the non-binding measure passed.

The other four counties were Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Washington and Yuma. Together, the five counties have a total population of about 29,200.

The measure failed 58 percent to 42 percent in Weld County — population 263,691 — where the 51st state idea first gained traction. Elbert, Lincoln, Logan, Moffat and Sedgwick counties also voted against secession.

Secession critic and retired University of Northern Colorado political science Prof. Steve Mazurana said the notion of breaking up with the Centennial State is all but dead.

“Without Weld County, the efforts to secede will go nowhere, at least for the next decade,” said Mazurana.

Schafer said the 51st state movement will now look to state lawmakers, including State Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, to advance a measure in next year’s legislative session to change statewide representation. Once such proposal is the Phillips Plan which would have representatives elected by county, rather than by population.

But University of Colorado law professor Richard Collins said a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s cemented the “one man, one vote” concept into law. Those cases will block any move to put rural counties on par with urban counties, he said.

The counties could also try to reshape the boundaries of legislative districts. But the Colorado Supreme Court said redistricting only happens every 10 years.

“So the next time they can do that is 2021,” Collins said. “These efforts are almost as hopeless as the 51st state movement and I thought that was pretty hopeless.”

State Sen. Greg Brophy — who represents many of the 51st state counties — said the counties that voted against secession were just being “pragmatic.”

“I suspect what they were saying with their vote is they liked Colorado as it is,” said Brophy, who is running for governor against incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper. “They just want a governor to represent them.”

Hickenlooper said he recognizes the frustration of the 51st state followers.

“While voters in six counties rejected the secession plan, we understand that some rural areas still feel underrepresented and are not being heard,” Hickenlooper said. “We remain committed to listening more and working with local communities all across Colorado.”

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Patrick Malone):

Voters passed secession initiatives in five rural, northeastern counties, while six counties rejected them. Perhaps more important than how many counties adopted the proposal was one that didn’t — Weld, the most populous and economically influential county where secession was on the ballot.

The five counties that passed secession measures have a combined population of 29,056. Even the least populous state in the nation, Wyoming, has 563,626 residents. Counties that rejected secession have 330,119 residents combined — 263,746 of whom live in Weld.

“There’s no doubt that if Weld had voted for this (Tuesday) night, it would have been a much different story,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, an architect of the 51st-state movement. “But the voters have spoken. We need to respect the voters’ wishes and look for other avenues to have that discussion.”

The new course for the movement is already taking shape, and it doesn’t involve leaving Colorado — quite the opposite. Conway said the next step is modeled after the measure voters passed in Phillips County on Tuesday, which would add seats in the state Legislature from rural Colorado.

That’s a tall order. It would require a constitutional change in the way legislative seats are apportioned. That would require approval by voters statewide. Before it could even reach the ballot, two-thirds of the Legislature or a sufficient number of petition signatures that would require plenty of urban support is necessary.

In other words, 51st-state organizers would need help from the parts of Colorado they sought to cast off if they are to elevate their political influence…

Instead of fortifying the urge to shake loose, Conway says the secession experiment has reminded rural Coloradans of the need to embrace the rest of the state — and hope that it reciprocates.

“The word came down from the voters: We’re proud to be Coloradans, and we love our state,” he said. “There’s nobody with guns in the street. Everybody got a chance to vote, and at the end of it all, everybody respects each other, even if they don’t agree.”

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

51st State Initiative touts ‘OVERWHELMING success,’ works to broaden secession

51st State Initiative loses in 6 of 11 counties, Weld County says no by 57% to 43%

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

The vote in Weld County had to hurt backers of secession. The movement originated there over the summer. Here’s a report from T.M. Fasano writing for The Greeley Tribune:

Weld County voters decided against secession and the creation of a 51st state Tuesday, defeating the initiative 57 percent to 43 percent. Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said he respects the decision of residents who voted down the 51st state initiative by double digits, but he said the dialogue regarding rural counties being heard has just begun.

“You have to respect the voters’ decision. Weld County commissioners will not pursue a 51st state, but we will pursue other options that I think address the problem,” Conway said from a Weld County election watch party in Fort Lupton. “The (disconnect) problem still exists. I think it’s incumbent upon us to continue this dialogue, which began in June to address the disconnect between rural and urban communities in Colorado, and come together to try and find a solution to addressing that problem.”

Weld County was one of 10 northeastern Colorado counties asking voters if they would like to secede from Colorado and form a new state. Moffat County, in northwest Colorado, joined the other 10 counties. After four community meetings around the county with Weld residents, the Weld commissioners chose to put the 51st proposal on the ballot and other communities followed.

Of the 11 counties voting, six (Weld, Logan, Elbert, Sedgwick, Lincoln and Moffat) voted down the 51st state proposal and five (Phillips, Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Yuma and Washington) voted for it. [ed. emphasis mine]

Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said a lot of good work was done pursuing secession and the effort sent a message in just four months.

“We will regroup and work with other counties throughout the state of Colorado. I still think there was a message that was sent,” said Kirkmeyer. “I still think there was a lot of folks who said they feel disconnected from their state government, and that we need to look for some other answers. There still is a disconnect out there.”

Conway said the record turnout in an off-year election was wonderful.

“We will be working with our residents and other counties and our legislators to try and come up with a solution. When we began this in June, the governor didn’t even recognize that there was a divide. Many legislators didn’t understand that there was a divide. Today, everybody’s talking about it. I think what we’ve done in beginning this dialogue is a very, very positive thing.”

The complaints from the 11 counties came as a result of new gun regulations, proposed oil and gas legislation and a renewable energy bill for rural electric companies that commissioners said showed lawmakers in the Denver area weren’t listening to those in the rural counties.

Kirkmeyer said the proposal kick-started the discussion that government is supposed to be about compromise, cooperation and communication.

“If this turns things around and opens doors and people start working together more, I think all of that is a good thing,” Kirkmeyer said.

Steve Mazurana, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Northern Colorado, spoke out against the measure at a 51st state forum. He said after the votes were counted that the people who want to remain in Colorado have spoken.

“They decided they’re better off staying in the state of Colorado rather than going into the great unknown of the process of becoming another state,” Mazurana said. “I think that’s wise because the costs outweigh the benefits.”

Mazurana said county commissioners have job responsibilities, and there are things that they should be doing and things they shouldn’t be doing.

“There are things somewhere in the middle of where it’s allowable, but I think it’s probably pretty clear under any state constitution that part of the job of a county commissioner is not to be the spearhead for seceding from the state,” Mazurana said. “That, I think, is not ethically responsible. I think if commissioners in Weld County feel that they need to be a part of another state, then they should resign their office and carry on as a private citizen because the only way you put that on the constitutional ballot is to go to a vote of all the people of Colorado, not just a handful of counties.”

Voters exiting the ballot drop-off site at the Windsor Community Recreation Center were mixed on the 51st state vote.

Kim Larson of Eaton, who is a Colorado native, voted against the 51st state proposal.

“My view is that to become a state involves a lot more than it would be worth, and I’m proud to be part of the state of Colorado,” Larson said. “The amount of change that has to happen. They have to think of school districts, about disaster relief if we have a flood again. To create a state that would have that type of funding, I can’t even imagine how much they would have to tax residents to create this small state that would be completely self reliant. Not to mention water sources. We don’t have an independent water source in Weld County. All of our water comes from other parts of the state.”

Jeff Dykstra of Windsor voted against the proposal, but saw both sides of the argument.

“I think it’s a great way to bring attention to the politicians to maybe give a little more focused attention on us here in northern Colorado, but I’m not sure that separating from the state and creating another state is the right answer,” Dykstra said. “I can see both sides of it.”

More 51st State Initiative coverage here

‘It’s really a referendum on how the state Legislature has been running over rural Colorado’ — John Kinkaid

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

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

For a motorist approaching Craig from the south on Colorado Highway 13 on a snowy October morning, Moffat County’s economic engines are well-displayed. Signs indicate the turnoffs to the Colowyo and Trapper coal mines. The towers of the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Craig Station coal-generated power plant loom just south of Craig. Pronghorn and mule deer — two prime targets of hunting in the county — share a field just before reaching the city.

Mess with such industries, and you’re threatening the livelihood of communities like Craig, where many businesses sport signs saying, “Coal — It keeps our lights on.” It was local concern about perceived over-regulation of coal-fired power that led to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visiting Craig during his campaign and presenting himself as a more coal-friendly alternative to President Barack Obama. Now that continuing concern is behind the county commissioners’ decision to ask voters whether Moffat should join counties in eastern Colorado in pursuing creation of a 51st state.

“Energy is our economy. If energy goes away, we will be a ghost town,” said Moffat Commissioner John Kinkaid.

The county’s list of top 10 taxpayers reads like a who’s-who of locally operating energy companies, with Tri-State alone accounting for nearly $6 million of the $17.4 million the 10 paid last year.

Kinkaid first brought up the idea of secession to his fellow commissioners.

“I was getting called by constituents here in our county asking for us to pursue it and so it didn’t really come from us as commissioners, it came from citizens contacting us,” Kinkaid said.

“Finally they bugged me enough that I said alright, I’d bring it up in a meeting, and I did and it just took off from there.”

“… It’s really a referendum on how the state Legislature has been running over rural Colorado. Many of us in Moffat County feel disenfranchised and that the Denver-Boulder power corridor is just running us over repeatedly,” Kinkaid said.

For Kinkaid it started with the 2010 passage of legislation aimed at converting some Front Range Xcel Energy power plant generation from coal to cleaner-burning fuels such as natural gas.

“We feel like we were just ignored over here and that it was a done deal before it was even introduced.

“… They were buying their coal from us. That’s why we were so involved and concerned about what was going on,” he said.

Then, this year the state Legislature passed a bill requiring rural energy cooperatives to obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, up from a previous target of 10 percent. The requirement takes aim at Tri-State Generation and Transmission and is viewed by some as a threat to plants like the one near Craig.

“They didn’t take really any input from Tri-State as to whether it was even feasible to do it,” said Kinkaid, who retired as a control room operator at the plant after winning election as a county commissioner last fall as an unaffiliated, but conservative, candidate.

“And then throw in the gun legislation and I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kinkaid said.

That’s a reference to bills passed this year banning gun magazines with more than 15 rounds and requiring universal background checks before sales or transfers of guns.

Said Moffat Commissioner Chuck Grobe, “They’re just passing laws that affect us and they don’t care what we say or what our feelings or thoughts are.

“… When the hunters decided to stay away because of our gun laws, that affects rural Colorado and not so much the Front Range. So that’s where the frustration comes in.”

IDEA NOT THOUGHT OUT?

While Grobe shares in that frustration, he voted against putting the secession question on the ballot, with Commissioner Tom Mathers siding with Kinkaid.

“It’s not necessarily that I was against it. It was that there was no discussion beforehand. This just came out of the clear blue a week before it had to be on the ballot. There wasn’t any discussion with the city of Craig,” he said.

He said the commissioners hadn’t looked into the idea first to see what the implications of secession might be, particularly as it pertains to what might happen regarding water rights in the county if it left the state. (See related story, “Water a big question mark for secession.”)

Grobe said he’s spoken to a water attorney, and “finding out that we’ll lose our water rights, that’s a pretty key issue on my mind moving forward.”

He said Tri-State is concerned about water rights for its plant if secession happens, and he worries what the water implications for coal mines could be as well.

As it turns out, the City Council of Craig, the county seat, voted unanimously against the secession idea, due to water and other worries.

“We were completely against it because we don’t think it was thought out as far as the ramifications it could have,” said council member Joe Bird.

He cited not just water but concerns about loss of state funding for highways, other infrastructure and schools.

That said, Bird sympathizes with the motives behind the secession movement.

“I understand them wanting to make a statement and their frustration and the Legislature not listening to them,” said Bird, who additionally said coal mines and the power plant provide jobs, a tax base and long-term stability for Craig.

CONSIDERABLE OBSTACLES

As far as making a statement goes, Moffat’s secession vote may indeed end up being more symbolic than anything else, as the obstacles against it are many, which Kinkaid acknowledged.

“It’s sending a message, but we need to change the political calculus at the state Capitol,” he said.

Moffat’s problems are compounded by the fact that it’s not contiguous with the eastern Colorado counties also talking about secession. And Kinkaid concedes the chances are slim of counties between Moffat and the eastern counties pursuing secession as well. Some of those counties hold political views distinctly different from Moffat’s.

Other options include trying to join Wyoming or Utah. Renny MacKay, a spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, has been quoted in the media as saying Moffat’s secession discussion “does not move us forward” at a time when the country and Wyoming face significant challenges.

“I guess they’re not interested in Baja Wyoming,” Kinkaid said with a grin.

A statement from Mead’s office released by MacKay on Thursday noted, “The ballot language is specific to Moffat County creating a 51st state. Given that — this is a matter for voters in Moffat County to decide. We in Wyoming will follow the election results as will many others around the region.”

STUPID, OR NOT?

Views vary widely in the Craig area about the secession idea.

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. We have a perfectly good state. What are we messing around for?” said Ellen Johnson.

But Van Piland said he voted for the measure.

“I think most of the people in northwest Colorado would like to have more appropriate representation in Denver or else go to Wyoming,” he said.

Amy Updike said that while it doesn’t necessarily mean she supports secession, she voted in support of at least looking into it.

“Why not? The governor (John Hickenlooper) is not looking out for communities like ours,” she said.

Maurits De Blank, who lives in Miami but runs apartments in Craig, said the proposal “makes no sense” and just reflects local frustrations with Denver.

“There’s just no chance whatsoever in my view” that secession would occur, said De Blank, who shares in the desire to protect Craig’s coal-based economy.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said Garfield commissioners haven’t considered the secession idea, but understand Moffat’s frustration.

“A lot of people see a war against rural Colorado from the Front Range and that’s what’s really stirring it up,” he said.

Garfield Commissioner Mike Samson is chairman of Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, which includes Garfield, Mesa, Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties. He said he thinks everyone in the association is sympathetic to the 51st-state cause. He doesn’t think the secession idea has much chance of succeeding, but hopes Front Range lawmakers will show more consideration for northwest Colorado, a big source of state revenue thanks to its natural resources.

“I feel like we’ve been ignored in a lot of instances,” he said.

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.