Officials with the 10 most northeastern counties on Monday shifted talks of secession to talks of how to increase their representation in the state Legislature, a change they said would address the rural disenfranchisement they cited as reason to secede from Colorado in the first place.
At a meeting in Akron among county commissioners from Weld, Phillips, Yuma, Kit Carson, Morgan, Logan, Sedgwick, Washington, Lincoln and Cheyenne counties, most commissioners said they and their constituents were turned off by the number of obstacles involved in creating a 51st state, especially the issues of state highway funds and water rights.
Instead, Phillips County administrator Randy Schafer said, the counties could work to change representation in the Colorado General Assembly so that rural counties have more say.
Weld commissioners supported the idea, but said they would still like to move forward with a ballot measure in November asking residents if they would like to secede.
Most other commissioners said they prefer the Phillips County plan, which would base state House or Senate representation on area instead of population, a move that can be done through a bill in the state Legislature or, if that doesn't work, through a citizen initiative.
It would be similar to Congress, in which the House of Representatives is based on population but the Senate has two senators from every state regardless of their population.
Currently, both Colorado's House and Senate are based on population, which gives heavy sway to the needs and values of those who live along the Front Range, Schafer said.
Several state bills regarding oil and gas development and gun control and a rural energy bill that officials said would be too costly for rural areas were the most recent issues that drove Weld County commissioners to propose secession.
While commissioners are moving forward with the representation proposal -- Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway is scheduling a meeting with Colorado Counties Inc., a statewide association of Colorado counties that lobbies the Colorado Legislature -- a major roadblock remains in a 1964 Supreme Court case, which ruled that all districts in any state legislature must be equal in population.
Conway said he believes there is a possibility the court could overturn its decision, citing a justice's dissent in the Reynolds v. Sims case that supports the idea of one body in the Legislature being based on population and one on area size.
But Weld County Commission chairman Bill Garcia said changing representation in the Colorado Legislature would require going through the very process of which rural Colorado counties have become wary. Garcia said he doesn't have faith that the Supreme Court would rule in their favor, and he still supports the 51st state idea, although he would like to hear the public's opinion in a series of meetings during the next few weeks.
Some commissioners from Cheyenne County and Washington County voiced similar sentiments, saying their constituents are in support of secession and that they don't want to wait until the 2014 legislative session to see if Colorado lawmakers would support the representation change.
Others, including Morgan County Commissioner Laura Teague, said their residents shy away from the secession idea once they hear about the costs and effort that comes with establishing entirely new statewide systems such as courts and law enforcement.
"Our budget can't handle those kinds of things," Teague said.
She and Conway said the Phillips County plan could also include rural western Colorado counties, which would add to the voices pressuring state lawmakers to change representation.
Yuma County Commissioner Dean Wingfield added that creating a North Colorado could simply create a small-scale version of the rural-urban tensions they had in the first place.
"About 75 percent of the population lives in Weld County," he said of the proposed new state. "And they aren't too far from being liberal themselves ... To be honest, I don't think this thing would pass in Weld County."
Wingfield echoed a comment that came from a number of commissioners regarding the 51st state: "Outside of this room, I haven't had anyone in Yuma who thought secession was a great idea," he said.
Still, a handful of residents who attended the meeting, including Yuma County resident Elizabeth Lenz, said they would like to see the secession proposal on the ballot.
"It's about time the voice of rural America was heard," Lenz said after the meeting. She had just run off copies needed to start a resident petition to get the 51st state proposal on the ballot. It was part of an agreement Yuma County commissioners worked out that said if Yuma residents could collect enough signatures, then they would support the idea.
One man who left the meeting early spoke against the secession proposal, saying he didn't want to be part of a state that allows hydraulic fracturing. He asked if there would be a way to buy his property out of the process, but no one directly answered his question.
Many thanked Weld commissioners for bringing what they feel is rural disenfranchisement to light, and some said they would like to pursue the Phillips County and the 51st state proposals at the same time.
"It probably won't pass, but I like the Phillips County idea," Lenz said. ___
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