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Could a 51st state come from Colorado?

By Burt Hubbard
I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS

Colorado could stand to benefit financially and would see some improvement in the educational and economic standings of its remaining residents if 10 northeastern counties should make good on their threat to secede and carve out a new state of North Colorado.

By those measures, Colorado’s attitude might be, “Have fun out there, new state!”

But what’s left of Colorado would also lose half of its lucrative oil wells, much of its prime farmland and some of the lowest crime areas in the state.

By those measures, Colorado’s attitude might be, “Can’t we just all get along?”

In addition to the 10 northeast Colorado counties that have a secession vote on November’s ballot, Moffat County in far northwest Colorado also will vote on whether to leave. But Moffat apparently wants to become Baja Wyoming.

I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS analyzed census, budget, crime and voter records to develop profiles of a new 51st state and a truncated Colorado. Suffice it to say, Colorado no longer would be considered a square state. And, of course, neither would Wyoming, with its new Moffat County panhandle.

Residents of the 11 counties will decide next month whether to start the fraught-with-difficulty political journey to leave Colorado and, in the case of the northeast counties, become a new state. West Virginia was the last state to manage such a separation, in 1863, during the American Civil War, a move validated solely by a proclamation from President Lincoln, according to a state website.

It isn’t that easy today. One impediment: Both houses of the U.S. Congress would have to agree.

But proponents of secession said rural Coloradans are tired of having unpopular laws such as stronger gun control and mandatory alternative-energy standards forced on them by a Front Range-dominated state Legislature.

“What has happened is the urbanization of America has disenfranchised the rural population,” said Jeffrey Hare, one of the organizers of the 51st State Initiative.

John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University, said bills from the last legislative session appear to have aroused animosity toward the Legislature.

“In terms of the immediate trigger, guns and probably SB 252 (requiring use of alternative-energy resources),” Straayer said. “They allege that it is more than that, not being treated properly by the legislature on a variety of issues for a long time.”

The eventual exodus, if the constitutional minefield could be navigated, would create a North Colorado of about 336,000 people, supplanting Wyoming as the least populous state in the U.S. It would leave Colorado with about 4.7 million residents, dropping it to the 23rd most populous state behind Alabama.

One of the key questions is the financial viability of a new state and its impact on the remainder of Colorado.

Financially, state government in Colorado probably would come out ahead if the 11 counties left, according to I-News estimates of how much revenue the state receives from the counties compared with expenditures there.

The counties generate between $360 million and $400 million yearly for the state in sales tax, state income tax and the state’s share of vehicle registration fees. That accounts for about three-fourths of the revenue Colorado receives from those counties each year from taxes and fees.

Extrapolating forward, that would be the equivalent of between $500 million and $560 million in revenue lost to the state from the 11 counties.

On the other side of the ledger, the state spends about $520 million in the 11 counties for K-12 school funding, incarcerating criminals from the counties, providing Medicaid, running the courts and the state’s share of running one university and three community colleges.

Those costs equal about 84 percent of the state’s overall general fund spending in the secession-voting counties. Extrapolating forward, that would come to total spending of about $620 million.

Bottom line: Colorado spends between $60 million and $120 million or more a year in the 11 counties than the revenue it receives.

“There’s still a lot of (state) money coming back to these counties,” said Brian Lewandowski, economist with the Leeds Business School at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Advocates of secession disagree with the I-News analysis and point to their own report that shows the counties break even with state government on spending and revenue.

The differences between the two analyses involved spending figures for K-12 education, revenue from the state income tax and severance taxes from gas and oil development.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office had no comment on what financial impact the secession would have on Colorado.

The I-News analysis did not examine how much money the counties currently receive directly from gas and oil operations. That’s money that would help run a new state. More than half of Colorado’s gas and oil wells would reside in the new state, mostly in Weld.

“It’s pretty amazing the amount of dollars that it generates,” Lewandowski said.

Weld County alone gets 55 percent of its property tax revenue from exploration. That has resulted in a current $100 million county contingency fund and no debt, said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, a leading proponent of secession who previously was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

During the recent flooding, the county was able to reopen its roads on its own.

“We’ve done this on our own,” Conway said. “We haven’t got help from the state.”

Not all politicians in Weld County want to secede. Tom Norton, mayor of Greeley and former Republican president of the state Senate, wrote in a column in The Greeley Tribune this summer that while some state decisions have hurt rural Colorado, collaboration with the state, not secession, is the solution. Demographically and politically, the two states – North Colorado and Colorado – would look quite different, the I-News analysis showed.

North Colorado would be predominately Republican with the fifth-highest ratio of Republicans to Democrats in the U.S. Meanwhile, Democrats in Colorado would outnumber Republicans for the first time in years.

“We would have a red state and a blue state,” Straayer said.

The would-be exiting counties generally are poorer and less educated than the rest of Colorado, according to Census data. College-education levels in North Colorado would be on par with those of Tennessee and Oklahoma, while college-graduation rates would rise in Colorado to the second highest in the nation.

Even if approved by the counties involved, secession would appear to remain a long shot, as it would require both Colorado and federal approval.

State ratification could come in a citizens’ initiative – such as the one that legalized recreational marijuana – in a referred ballot measure from the Legislature or in an act of the Legislature, said Richard Collins, professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.

If that happened, it then would need approval by both houses of Congress.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and collaborates with news outlets across Colorado.

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