Ballot reflects more pronounced 
rural vs. urban divide in Colorado



Shall the Board of County Commissioners of (blank*) County, in concert with the county commissioners of other Colorado counties, pursue those counties becoming the 51st state of the United States of America?

* 11 Colorado counties include this question on their ballot this year.

Representation without, well, representation.

That, at least, is the rallying cry of some folks in northeastern Colorado who are backing an effort to create a 51st state.

Several of the people behind the effort say they are pushing it because they don’t feel their values are being represented in the Colorado Legislature.

Each of the 11 counties that have non-binding resolutions on their ballots for Tuesday’s election are calling on their commissioners to pursue that effort, but it isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway.

“I’ve been called petulant, knee-jerk, we’re going to take our marbles and go home. None of that really means a lot to me and here’s why: The disconnect is real,” he said. “It’s a problem not just for those of us in Weld County, or north Colorado, it’s a problem for the entire state of Colorado, and in many of our states.

“People in rural Colorado feel disenfranchised. They don’t feel the governor is listening to them, they don’t feel their United States senators are listening. This is a new phenomenon, and it has been brought on by a huge influx of population which has changed the political makeup.”

Conway and other supporters, all of whom are Republican, say the effort isn’t so much sour grapes that Democrats have a majority in the Legislature and the governor’s office.

No, they said. It’s more about urban lawmakers not fully understanding rural values.

“The urbanization of the state, particularly in the last 10 years where the growth has primarily been along the I-25 corridor, has caused the rural areas to lose what little voice they’ve had in getting legislation passed or blocking legislation that was antagonistic or hostile toward rural communities,” said Jeffrey Hare, treasurer of the group, “There’s been this slide of lack of representation that really manifested itself in this last legislative session. This isn’t a party issue. It’s an issue of rural versus urban. The urbanization of Colorado is going to continue.”

Hare and Conway said there was a time in recent years, even when Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature as they do now, when they were able to impart their views and influence legislation.

But since the current cadre of Democrats took charge, all from urban Front Range districts, things began to change, they said.

That change hit a crescendo during this year’s legislative session when Democrats pushed through such “anti-rural” measures as higher renewable energy standards on rural electric associations, stricter oil and gas set-back rules and the mother of all measures, limits on gun magazines and background checks on all firearm sales.

The two men said an increasing number of rural Coloradans fear more is to come, particularly when they hear some Front Range Democrats call for statewide bans on hydraulic fracturing in natural gas development.

“The role of government isn’t to take liberties away from some people because other people need to be protected,” said Hare, who lost a GOP primary bid last year for House District 48 to now Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance. “The right solution is allowing communities to have the flavor of government that reflects the people living in those communities.”

Still, while both men say they would create a new state, their real goal is to end the disenfranchisement in representation. That’s also why they support a growing movement to alter the way the Legislature is made up.

In addition to the 51st state initiative measure, the Phillips County Board of Commissioners added a second non-binding resolution to its ballot calling for changing how district lines are drawn either for the Colorado House or Senate. The change would call for at least one, most likely the Senate, to require one senator from each county, which would increase the size of that chamber from 35 members to 64. The House has 65 members.

Like other states, legislative representatives are based on population, and district lines are changed after the 10-year Census is completed.

But because those population increases have occurred in urban areas, it’s the state’s larger cities that have a greater hold on those legislative seats, regardless of political party.

As a result, areas of the state such as the Western Slope have seen a diminishing ability to influence state policies, said Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, a Republican.

Later this month, Pugliese plans to introduce a resolution to the three-member Mesa County Board of Commission to support the 51st state initiative, even though she’s not necessarily proposing the county join it.

“Even the Western Slope doesn’t feel like it’s getting heard,” she said. “You’ve got commissioners from all over the state wanting help, needing assistance and feeling like it’s going on deaf ears.”

The idea is being considered by Colorado Counties Inc., the lobbying group of the state’s 64 counties, one that state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is considering introducing into the Legislature.

That measure is to call for a statewide referendum for the 2014 general election asking voters to remake the Legislature.

Moffat Commissioner John Kinkaid agreed that might be a better approach to rural Colorado’s problems because it would give geographically large counties such as his their own state senators, regardless of population size.

“Really, we don’t want to leave Colorado so much,” Kinkaid said. “It would be way easier if Denver and Boulder just left, and just left the rest of us alone.”

If secession or Legislature reform goes forward, either would require a constitutional amendment and convincing voters to pass it.

Even if that were to happen, the new state effort still would need congressional approval, something that could prove to be more difficult, the supporters agree.

— Dennis Webb contributed to this story.


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