Talk of secession in Colorado took a fresh turn Friday when members of Colorado Counties Inc. voted to support the drafting of an initiative to amend the state’s system of representative government.
The initiative, known as the Phillips County proposal, aims to amend the Colorado Constitution by increasing the number of state senators from 35 to 64, one for each county. The proposal would require passage in the Colorado General Assembly, as well as state voter approval to amend the Constitution.
The proposal is being advertised as a compromise to the 51st State Initiative movement launched this year by officials from 11 counties in eastern and northeastern Colorado who are upset about gun control measures and the renewable energy mandates bill that passed through the legislature last session.
Phillips County is among those 11 eastern Colorado counties pushing the 51st State Initiative.
However, for secession to become a reality each county’s proposal would have to be approved by the state legislature, the governor, Congress and eventually the president of the United States.
“Secession is a pretty catastrophic process, so we looked for an alternative to get a voice back in the state legislature,” said Randy Schafer, administrator for Phillips County. “This proposal is designed after the federal government’s model of equal representative government.”
Although the U.S. Congress is composed of lawmakers who represent districts based on population, the U.S. Senate includes two representatives from each state. All state legislatures feature two governing bodies, Schafer said, but in almost all circumstances at the state level representative and senatorial seats are driven by population density.
“This is happening in every state in the country because of population movement to urban centers,” Schafer said. “As a result, urban legislators are driving state policy. This proposal would guarantee equal representation in at least one of the houses.”
The Phillips County proposal was debated Friday during a Colorado Counties Inc. legislative meeting.
Colorado Counties Inc. is a nonprofit organization comprising at least one commissioner from each of Colorado’s 64 counties. The organization is divided into five districts — eastern, Front Range, mountain, southern and western — with each district having two representative officers.
Commissioner Dan Gibbs serves as Summit County’s voting member. Commission Chairman Thomas Davidson is the president of CCI’s mountain district and the organization’s board of directors.
The legislative committee meets before the start of each state legislative session to debate legislative proposals, Gibbs said. Issues that garner the support of the majority of the committee are passed off to CCI’s lobbyists who work with state lawmakers to get bills introduced in the Colorado General Assembly.
The Phillips County proposal was debated for almost an hour Friday, but in the end it was added to CCI’s legislative agenda, 24-19, said CCI executive director Chip Taylor.
“There was broader acknowledgment from the larger counties that there is an issue,” Taylor said. “There was recognition among the committee that the voices of the minority (namely rural Coloradans) are not being heard and respected, judging by how things played out this year at the state legislature.”
Gibbs was among those who voted against the proposal, saying Thursday that although he understands the appeal among rural Coloradans, it would ultimately limit Summit County’s influence at the capitol. He was surprised that the proposal received support from some of Colorado’s urban counties, including Jefferson and El Paso counties.
“It’s interesting some of these counties supported it because they’re essentially limiting their influence at the Capitol,” Gibbs said. “In Summit County we have a state rep. that is a Democrat and state senator that is a Republican. I don’t necessarily always agree with how they vote, but they work hard and I would not support a measure that would limit Summit County’s influence at the Capitol.”
In addition, Gibbs cited the logistical and financial challenges that would come should the proposal garner enough support in the legislature to be proposed as a ballot question to amend the Colorado Constitution.
“You’re talking about adding 29 senators and there simply isn’t enough room at the Capitol to house all of them,” Gibbs said. “It also would be costly to the state and the taxpayers” because you would also be adding 29 new salaries.
But Schafer said eastern Colorado commissioners are already considering those challenges. Although it hasn’t been drafted yet, the Phillips County proposal could be amended to have the House of Representatives restructured to include one representative from each county.
The Colorado House of Representatives is currently composed of 65 legislators, which would alleviate both of those logistical and financial hurdles, and meet rural Coloradans’ desire for more representative government, Schafer said.
Despite those considerations, Gibbs said he thinks there is little hope for the proposal, saying it would likely die in committee before a question could be proposed to state voters.
Taylor shared in Gibbs’ assessment.
“There seemed to be a consensus among the members of the (CCI legislative) committee that you can’t just trample on the rights of people simply because you have the votes to do it,” Taylor added. “However, there was some disagreement about whether this is the right way to fix it.”