Secessionist Movement in Colorado Highlights Rural/Urban Divide

Mounting discontent among residents of northeastern Colorado has given rise to a movement seeking to sever ties with the rest of the state.

At this writing, five counties – Weld, Cheyenne, Sedgwick, Phillips, and Yuma – have agreed to have a question on this November’s ballot, asking voters if they want to secede from Colorado.  Another five counties are expected to follow suit.

The growing estrangement between the rural counties of northern Colorado and the state government in Denver reached a peak during this year’s recently ended legislative session.  Bills restricting access to firearms and doubling the mandate for renewable energy in rural areas were approved by the Democrat-controlled state legislature and signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper (D).  Both measures were seen as hostile to rural interests, prompting county officials in northeastern Colorado to launch the 51st State Initiative.

With a legislature increasingly dominated by the urban interests of large cities such as Denver and Boulder, elected officials in the counties contemplating session, along with a growing number of their constituents, have come to believe they have no future in Colorado. “They want change,” Weld County Commission Chairman Bill Garcia told the Denver Post (August 20).  “They want to be heard.  Policies being passed by the Legislature in Denver are having negative impacts on the lives of rural Coloradans.”  Weld County is the largest county considering session and is a center of agriculture and oil and gas production.

“War on Rural Colorado”

Unlike most states, Colorado’s bicameral legislature has a Senate whose boundaries are determined by population.  By contrast, the U.S. Constitution gives each state two senators regardless of the State’s population.  This means that Colorado’s 35 senators disproportionately represent the state’s urban areas.   Proponents of secession say they have been effectively disenfranchised and that urban dominance has led a “war on rural Colorado.”

Those fed up with Denver’s policies are looking at three options:

  1. Secession, leading to the creation of the 51st state, tentatively called Northern Colorado.  Colorado’s legislature would have to amend the state’s constitution to determine the borders of the new state and then ask Congress to approve the creation of Northern Colorado.  At this point, it is unlikely that the same legislature that is carrying out the “war on rural Colorado” would give its consent to a scheme that would result in a truncated Colorado, stripped of the revenues provided by the northern counties’ agriculture and oil and gas.
  2. Seek annexation of the northern counties by Wyoming.  The Cowboy State would probably welcome the new residents and the revenues they would bring with them. By the same token, Colorado would fiercely resist the move, setting up a titanic legal and political battle over who ends up with the northern counties.
  3. Reform the Colorado legislature, giving each of the state’s 35 counties two senators.  This would strengthen the hand of rural residents and put some curbs on urban domination of the legislature.  But would urban legislators go along with a scheme that curtails their power?

Regardless of what the future has in store for Colorado’s northern counties, a vote for session on Nov. 5 will send a strong message to Gov. Hickenlooper and the state’s political establishment.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.