Jeffrey Hare doesn’t want to live in Colorado anymore. But he doesn’t want to move away either.
So the conservative at-large member of the Weld County Council has been helping lead the charge for several rural counties, including his, to secede from the state and create North Colorado. The dream Hare and others have is that the nation’s 51st state would be a place where residents could be free of what they see as burdensome gun and oil regulations imposed on them by their current leaders.
That dream won something of a muted victory this week when voters in 11 rural counties split on whether the idea was a good one. Five counties voted to encourage their counties to explore secession. Six, including Weld County, the most populous among them, voted against it.
TPM caught up with Hare on Wednesday, the day after the vote, to ask what his group, the 51st State Initiative, plans to do next, why he thinks “the urbanization of America” is a problem, and why he thinks such an extreme measure is necessary.
TPM: The 51st State Initiative says creating a new state was meant to address a “growing divide between urban and rural interests.” So what do you see as the fundamental differences between those interests?
JEFFREY HARE: Well, we talk about certain things in particular. Gun control legislation, which was widely opposed by rural communities, more supported by urban communities. And even the governor, in signing the gun control legislation, admitted that he was trying to solve an urban issue and it would require some inconvenience for people living in rural communities. So gun control, and obviously that’s made national news. You have 55 out of 64 sheriffs filing suit against the state, which is primarily, virtually all the rural sheriffs in the state. So number one is gun control.
Number two would be renewable energy policy. If you date back to 2003, when the initial 10 percent renewable energy mandate happened in the state of Colorado, requiring all electrical providers to have 10 percent from alternative sources — most of rural Colorado, those that are most influenced by agriculture and energy, as opposed to those rural communities that are more the ski towns, voted against that 2003 initiative. And in this last legislative session we had what we call the assault on rural Colorado, the war on rural Colorado, where the urban-based legislature passed an increase of those alternative energy mandates from 10 percent to 20 percent. Widely opposed by both lobbyists, if you will, for the REAs, rural electrical associations, co-ops, as well as protested against by the average citizen. It was a very heated debate. And of course the urban legislature went ahead and signed it and forced that on rural Colorado. So that’s number two.
The third I would say is energy policy in general. If you look at just what happened last night and the votes with the anti-fracking groups — Boulder, Fort Collins, Broomfield, as examples — they passed what are essentially fracking bans, even though its an indefinite moratorium or a five-year moratorium depending on which county it is. So they feel very strongly about, if you want to call it, the environmental risks of oil and gas drilling. And by and large rural Colorado feels very comfortable with those risks We would argue that there hasn’t really been any reason to be concerned about environmental risks.
To go back to gun control, what’s a reason these counties would oppose background checks for gun buyers?
Well, there has been criminal background checks for gun buyers for a long time, both at the federal level and the state level. There’s just a principled opposition to anything related to Second Amendment rights. Both the magazine ban and the universal background check are just an erosion of Second Amendment rights. People would argue that both of them are setting up for a national database of gun owners. So typical, you would call it, arguments.
So on renewable energy, is there also just widespread, on principle, opposition to imposing percent standards on where each farm needs to get its energy from?
In principle, you shouldn’t have a state government forcing its will on certain portions, even minority portions, of the state. … So I would argue that’s not the proper role of government. The role of government is not to erode liberty, the role of government is to protect liberty. So the principled argument is you have rural communities saying we don’t want this. It’s imposed upon us. And you have an urban-centric legislature that’s saying we don’t care what you want we’re going to do it anyways.
So that’s a principled argument, but that fact is it relates to, if you look at wind and solar, there is not an economic benefit, it’s an economic detriment. We’ve already seen that, that the energy rates in Colorado are 20 percent higher than in adjacent states primarily because of the original 10 percent alternative energy mandate and when you have farmers running, as an example, irrigated pivots that is driven by electricity, you have people living, just looking at the eastern plains, you look at the five counties that did vote for it, they are in a regional economy and they can’t pass those costs on. They can’t increase the cost of their byproduct through their production or the end price, if you will, because its a regional market. So they’re competing with Nebraska and Kansas farmers to sell hay or corn and have higher input costs. So it means either: number one, they’re going to go out of business potentially; or number two, they’re going to make much smaller profit margins. So what people really want in the rural parts of the state is a free market energy economy. What we don’t want is the government saying you must provide input — and it would be the same case if natural gas and oil or coal was higher priced than alternative energy — the principle of the matter is government shouldn’t be picking winners or losers in that debate.
So this is an issue of the bottom line then for these co-ops?
Right. It’s purely an economic, free-market-driven argument.
So you’d say those are the three main issues, the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to proposing the ballot initiative?
There’s a lot of things that have gone on for a long time. The urbanization of America has driven all the power, if you will, into all the population centers. The one thing that often the press gets wrong in this is they say this is really a Republican versus Democrat issue. And I would just point to Kansas and Nebraska, which are two hardcore-red states, Republican-dominated states and you have very disenfranchised rural farmers living in the Western parts of those states equally as frustrated with being underrepresented in the state legislature, even with an “R” behind people’s names, so it really is a systemic issue. Not all farmers vote “R.” If you go to certain states like Iowa, for example, there’s probably more people that vote for Democrats than they do Republicans.
So how are those 11 counties that put the initiative on the ballot represented in Colorado’s legislature?
I’m trying to think — collectively, they may have one senator and one house member. At least, I’m not familiar with how the lines are drawn enough to say with certainty. I know at least in those five counties, I can only think of one state senator that lives in those five. If you go to the 11, there was four or five House members and three senators perhaps. So they’re underrepresented because both the Senate and the House are based upon population. So even in the cases where there is rural areas drawn into a particular district, they have a much greater population that lives in the urban areas so they’re going to tend to vote for what’s in the interest of the urban people as opposed to the rural folks.
So why was creating a new state the first avenue that the county commissioners turned to?
Well, I would say it wasn’t the first. They’ve been actively working on resolving these issues, on all three of them if you will, during normal legislative means. So they were down in front of Congress, the state legislature last year, testifying against all these. You’ve heard all that, this is the gun control stuff, how people felt very disenfranchised and not being able to testify in front of meetings, even elected sheriffs were turned away from testimony. As it relates to alternative energy and oil and gas, again, our commissioners and commissioners throughout this region were very involved in that process and were just flat out ignored by the state legislators. So it’s not that they haven’t been involved with all the normal means of making sure good people get elected. It just comes down to the deficiency, that urban communities don’t have to even listen to rural communities because they have more than the majority vote in the legislature. So this is a response to many years of frustration, not just this last legislative session. The last legislative session was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
What happens now? Five of the 11 counties who put the initiative on the ballot voted in favor. Six voted it down. So what happens to that voter referendum now?
Well, we’re gonna go meet with the county commissioners in those five counties. We actually have a meeting next week in Burlington, which is Kit Carson county, one of the five counties. So we sent an email out today and basically asked the county commissioners how to you want to proceed and how can we help.
The referendum has always been known to be non-binding. It’s just official feedback. So through gathering information, through talking to people, and just in general the campaign process of the last few months we kind of know where the areas are we could have done a better job at educating people. We just didn’t have the time or money really to do what we wanted to do in terms of educating people and getting them to be supportive of initiatives.
So we could still could go to a statewide ballot in 2014. Maybe a little bit more of an uphill battle than we would have liked with a stronger vote yesterday. But the other thing that’s being pursued is a restructuring of the state Senate, which is what we call a Phillips County proposal because that came out of a commissioner that recommended that or suggested that in Phillips County. And that would restructure the state Senate to get more representation to rural Colorado and provide a natural check and balance between the population-dominated House and potentially a state Senate that would be more representation for rural Colorado.
And what would it take for the Phillips County proposal to advance? What would it need to pass?
It takes a statewide constitutional amendment, which … would have to go to a statewide vote in 2014, of the entire state with a majority vote. It could either get referred by the state legislature, I think 2/3 of the state legislature would have to refer a constitutional amendment to a vote, or it could be brought forward by a citizen’s initiative, which we have, it’s a referendum process in Colorado.
Would the five counties that did vote in favor ever proceed without support from the others that were considering the initiative?
I think that remains to be seen. I’m not gonna pre-judge that, because I’m not in a position right now. Our role would be to support them if they wanted to do that. It could be that they could proceed and we could still draw on other counties, that maybe we don’t have the support at this time, but we feel like we could get the support in 2014. So it doesn’t necessarily mean there would only be five counties if we went to a statewide ballot and continued the 51st state initiative. We just know we have to do a better job of educating people to get a stronger vote next time around.
You’ve been mentioning 2014 a lot. What do you hope to accomplish with the initiative by then? What’s your main goal going forward?
I think it remains to be seen which path we’re gonna take. I would frankly love to see a statewide ballot on the 51st State Initiative, whether it’s five counties or we can get that expanded and feel comfortable with including 15 or 20 counties, I still think that’s a possibility. It is the right solution in the long run. It’s a much better solution than the Phillips County proposal. I think it will bring back representation closer to the people, which is what we’re advocating. It’s much more local control than our state government, in the new state.
The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Photo provided by Jeffrey Hare.
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