Will Colorado come apart?


When county commissioners get together and start to think, the fat’s in the fire. (Trust me on this.)

For instance, last week a bunch of Colorado county commissioners got together at Keystone (the resort, not the pipeline) and came up with the idea of seceding from Colorado and forming a 51st state, possibly named “North Colorado.”

Commissioners from eight rural counties were involved, including Weld (which seems to be the leader of the pack), Kit Carson, Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma.

“This is for real,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. “This has been building for several months. We’ve had citizens coming to our hearings for months asking us to please do something.”

Do something about what, I hear you ask?

About all the liberal, anti-rural stuff the Democratic state legislature has been doing, including passing new gun-control laws, restrictions intended to prevent the cruel treatment of livestock, and a bill doubling the amount of renewable energy rural utilities have to include in their portfolios. They are also exercised about the number of anti-oil-and-gas bills liberals tried (but mostly failed) to push through the legislature during the recently concluded session.

“They treat us as if we don’t exist,” Conway said. “It’s not like we didn’t try to engage the legislature — it’s that we were ignored over and over again.”

Perhaps the more telling remark about what’s motivating the secessionists came from Weld County Commissioner Douglas Radamacher.

“Our vision and our morals are no longer represented by the state [legislature] and the current [governor’s] administration, and we think it’s time that we do take seriously what our options are,” he said.

“Our vision and our morals are no longer represented by the state …” In other words, it’s not just a series of public policy disputes. It’s a values thing.

So what are the chances of Colorado’s counties actually breaking away and forming their own state?

Seceding from a state and forming another state is really tough, but not impossible. Article 4, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution sets out the process. And five of the 50 states were actually created as the result of such secessions, albeit a long time ago: Vermont (from New York in 1791), Kentucky (from Virginia in 1792), Tennessee (from North Carolina in 1796), Maine (from Massachusetts in 1820) and West Virginia (from Virginia in 1863).

Article 4, Section 3 says, “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new state shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state; nor any state formed by the junction of two or more states, or parts of states, without the consent of the legislatures of the states concerned as well as of the Congress.”

In addition, creating the putative state of North Colorado would likely also require a statewide vote of the people within Colorado. That’s because the borders of Colorado are set by the state constitution, and the state constitution can be changed only by a vote of the people.

Yes, seceding from Colorado will be a very steep hill to climb, prompting The Denver Post to editorialize that attempting to do so “is a waste of time.”

I don’t think I would be quite as dismissive of the secessionists’ prospects as the Post is, at least not until we see how the secession idea plays with the rest of rural Colorado. It’s not inconceivable that the concept of forming a new state will resonate with rural counties in southeast Colorado as well as northeast Colorado. They are just as alienated from the counties of the metro Denver area as the northeast counties are, only moreso, maybe. So it isn’t inconceivable that the putative state of North Colorado could morph into the state of East Colorado.

To Boulder County residents, the secession movement might seem like a comical, conservative, hayseed crusade with no chance of going anywhere. But before locking in on that conclusion, it might be worth waiting to know how the folks in El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs, Colorado’s second-largest city, feel about it. Colorado Springs is about as big as Denver, but its vision and morals are much more in keeping with those of rural eastern Colorado than those of metro Denver.

Consider the possibility of a new state consisting of Colorado’s eastern counties (northeast and southeast) with Colorado Springs as its capital, with an ongoing oil and gas boom pouring billions of dollars a year into its economy, and with oil and gas taxes paying the bills. In other words, a state that looked a lot like North Dakota, which currently has the lowest unemployment and soundest finances in the country. Still laughing?

The more interesting question is how would the Colorado legislature and the people of Colorado come down if they actually had to vote on the secession proposal. I had to deal with a similar question when I was on the county commission in 1998, and the answer isn’t obvious.

The city of Broomfield, which was partly in Boulder County and partly in Adams, Jefferson and Weld Counties, wanted to secede from all four and turn itself into its own county.

My initial gut reaction to the idea was hostile, but on reflection I changed my mind, because a) the loss of 10 percent or 15 percent of our tax revenue was balanced by the loss of 10 percent or 15 percent of our Republicans, ensuring a Democratic lock on county government (I was a Democrat back then), b) Boulder and the other counties got language inserted into the constitutional amendment creating the City and County of Broomfield that sharply limited its ability to annex into adjacent counties, and most important, c) at the end of the day it seemed a profoundly bad idea to force people to stay who didn’t want to. The last point was really the decisive one.

I suspect a lot of Coloradans would come to similar conclusions if some or all of Colorado’s northern and eastern counties wanted to form their own state.

Colorado, like America itself, is a union of consenting adults; if some of them withdraw their consent and start their own state, I suspect their wishes will receive a decent, if grudging, respect.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com