Ag, energy at heart of proposed “North Colorado”
July 15, 2013
Weld County commissioners on Thursday announced that they want to join other northeastern Colorado counties in forming a new state — North Colorado.
Commissioners said a "collective mass" of issues have cumulated during the past several years that isolate rural Colorado from the rest of the state and put those counties at a disadvantage.
They said they met with county commissioners at a Colorado Counties, Inc. conference earlier this week to discuss the feasibility of forming a new state, a question that would first be put to voters on the November ballot.
Commissioners said Morgan, Logan, Sedgwick, Phillips, Washington, Yuma and Kit Carson counties all expressed interest in the idea.
The signing of SB 252, which increases renewable energy standards in rural areas in a way that rural energy companies say is too costly, and an attack on the oil and gas industry from the Legislature this year were the "straws that broke the camel's back," commissioners said.
Weld County's main economic drivers — agriculture and energy — are under attack, even though they fill Colorado coffers, said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway.
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He said Weld County hardly sees a return from its financial contributions to the state. Conway said he has watched as transportation corridors in the Denver area continue to be improved while Interstate 76, a vital corridor for Colorado's agricultural counties, remains in deplorable condition.
Conway and Weld County Commissioners Doug Rademacher and Mike Freeman met with The Tribune on Thursday to explain their intentions. They said the entire board is in agreement about the initiative, which they said has been suggested by numerous Weld County residents.
Commissioners said they plan to hold several public meetings to gather input from the community on whether creating the new state is a good idea before crafting a ballot initiative by Aug. 1.
"I know that initially you're kinda like, 'Wow, it's a little out there,' " Conway said. But he said a new state would be economically viable.
With an assessed value of $7.5 billion this year and continued announcements from Noble Energy, Inc., Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and others planning to invest billions more on drilling in the region, more money could go to ignored infrastructure and to education, which commissioners said is seriously underfunded in Weld County.
Weld County alone is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island, and its economy is diversified, Rademacher said.
Overall tax revenue in Weld County has increased year after year, but Freeman said the schools here continue to get the same inadequate allocations from the state because of an outdated and unequal Public School Finance Act.
Freeman said the University of Northern Colorado could become a land grant university, meaning it could receive additional funding from the federal government under certain provisions. Commissioners said they haven't discussed anything with UNC, but plan to in the near future.
Theresa Myers, director of communications for Greeley-Evans School District 6, said district officials are as surprised by the announcement as anyone and have "no idea" what the implications of a change like that would mean for the school district.
"We would need infinitely more information on how it would impact us financially before we could make an educated comment," Myers said.
Conway said Vermont, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia petitioned for statehood for similar reasons in United States history. He said just because it hasn't been done for 150 years, doesn't mean the proposal isn't appropriate.
"It hasn't been tried in a while, but we also didn't have a Supreme Court decide the presidential election for 100 years" until the 2000 presidential election, he said.
If state and federal lawmakers approve of the new state, there would be 51 white stars on the American flag and countless questions.
Under guidelines in the U.S. Constitution, North Colorado would have to get the consent of the Colorado General Assembly and the U.S. Congress to move forward with forming its own state.
Richard Collins, a law professor at the University of Colorado, said the proposal would also likely require a statewide vote to amend the Colorado Constitution, because it outlines the state's boundaries.
While no county has actually seceded from a state in recent years, there have been plenty of threats. Last year, 13 mostly conservative counties proposed to form South California. And last February, a group of attorneys in southern Arizona proposed the new state of Baja Arizona to break away from the more conservative counties in the northern part of the state.
The district that U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., comes from would be split, but Gardner said in a statement on Thursday that he is sympathetic to what commissioners are doing.
"The people of rural Colorado are mad, and they have every right to be," he said in the statement. "The governor and his Democrat colleagues in the statehouse have assaulted our way of life, and I don't blame these people one bit for feeling attacked and unrepresented by the leaders in our state."
Eric Brown, spokesman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said in an email that not all of those in rural Colorado probably agree with Weld County commissioners.
"Background checks on gun sales, increasing renewable energy and supporting responsible development of oil and gas are popular with rural and urban voters," Brown said. "Not everyone agrees, of course. But we keep trying."
Hickenlooper did sign an executive order to prevent the rural energy bill's implementation. But commissioners said the fact that Hickenlooper signed the bill, coupled with a recent comment from Colorado House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst that legislators will be coming back "bigger and better" next year with bills to regulate the oil and gas industry — have them more worried than ever.
Commissioners insisted they are serious about the proposal, but they said if nothing else, they hope it highlights the longstanding tensions between rural and urban Colorado communities, which have hit a breaking point with rural residents being treated like "second-class citizens."
They said they could also join with other eastern Colorado counties or even some western Nebraska counties that have expressed discontent with their own state Legislature.
"I think this is a healthy discussion to have," Conway said. ❖