Ballot proposal aims to restructure legislature

The Colorado Statesman

Following a failed attempt to secede from the state of Colorado, the so-called “51st state movement” has morphed into an effort to restructure the state legislature with the aim of giving rural Colorado more of a voice.

The newest attempt comes in the form of a proposed ballot initiative that would reorganize the legislature with a model similar to U.S. Congress. The House would be based on land area and each county in the state would have its own representative, reducing the House from 65 to 64 representatives.

The Senate would remain based on population, with 35 members. Currently, both the House and the Senate are based on population.

Proponents acknowledge that the proposed initiative follows the unsuccessful secession movement last year, in which voters in 11 counties in northern Colorado were asked whether they would like to secede from the state. The ballot questions were more of a straw poll in which six of those counties rejected the proposal, halting the 51st state initiative.

But the outcry was still heard, and proponents of the movement are drawing upon the momentum to attempt to convince voters to change the way Coloradans elect state representatives beginning in 2017.

Much of the frustration was born out of a push by Democrats last year in the state legislature, which included a package of gun control laws, and a rural renewable energy standard loathed by many ratepayers in remote parts of the state.

The question would appear before voters in November if proponents can collect the 86,105 valid signatures necessary to make the ballot. The title has been set for the proposed initiative and proponents are in the process of collecting signatures.

“Since that didn’t get as much of a boost as we would have liked, instead of counties pursuing statehood independently, we felt it was best to pursue this initiative,” Jeff Hare, a spokesman for the “Restoring Colorado” initiative, explained of the evolution of secession.

“This is about restoring a republican form of government,” added Hare.

Phillips County Commissioner Joe Kinnie, who is a proponent along with Phillips County Administrator Randy Schafer, said rural Colorado believes that urban lawmakers are drowning out their voices.

“This is come about over years, but the last two years it just seems like we have good representation we send up to the Capitol, but their hands are tied just because they’re overwhelmed by urban legislators. We just don’t have a real voice anymore,” explained Kinnie.

“It just seems like the urban legislators have a mindset of a one-size-fits-all attitude,” he continued. “There’s no collaboration between the parties, and quite frankly, rural Colorado has not a single bit of voice anymore.”

Kinnie said he was not a proponent of the secession movement, but that he agrees with the anger over the divide between rural and urban Colorado. He is optimistic that the initiative is a fair compromise.

“This has been going on ever since the secession idea, and most of [rural Colorado] likes this far more than they did the secession just because it doesn’t split up the state,” explained Kinnie.

“We don’t know what we can do out here to get any rural representation and have a voice in our government,” he added. “You might as well call it tyranny, because the urban legislators have got it all.”

Kinnie points out that rural Colorado is home to Colorado’s leading industries, including agriculture and oil and gas.

“What kind of voice do we have?” he asked. “I don’t know. But we have to have both the urban and rural, and we’ve got to work together.”

One of the greatest hurdles will be convincing urban voters to restructure the legislature based on a push by rural parts of the state. But Kinnie believes that urban voters are sympathetic.

“I can’t help but think there are a lot of people who live in the urban areas who have ties to rural Colorado and who are concerned about our problem,” he said.

The Phillips County commissioner is hopeful that he will earn the support of Colorado Counties, Inc., which advocates for both urban and rural county operations. CCI supported a concurrent resolution this year at the state legislature that would have sent voters a similar question.

But Eric Bergman, policy and research supervisor for CCI, said that it is premature to discuss the current ballot drive.

“Our bylaws dictate that any position on a ballot measure has to be voted on by the entire membership of CCI…” he said, pointing out that the next meeting will be next month.

Not all rural Coloradans, however, are rushing to completely restructure the state legislature. Pam Bricker, executive director of the Greeley Downtown Development Authority, opposed the secession drive and is worried about the current “Restoring Colorado” proposal.

Greeley is in Weld County, where the secession movement was born, but also soundly defeated by voters.

“People need to sit down and talk about it and see what makes sense and how that goes forward,” she opined.

“It’s always good for people to listen to the concerns of the rural parts of our state, I just didn’t agree with [secession], and there were just as many people that I heard from that said, ‘Oh, god. They’re out of their minds. This is ridiculous,’” explained Bricker.

She is not convinced that restructuring the legislature is necessary to offer more of a voice to rural Colorado, pointing out that many urban lawmakers are willing to learn about the issues.

“This legislative session was far more conciliatory and there’s a lot of reasonable people that just need to understand what issues are out there that we need to address,” added Bricker.

Legislature reacts

The issue fell flat in the Democratic-controlled legislature this year where Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, proposed the concurrent resolution that would have referred a similar question to voters. The measure was killed on a party-line vote when it was up in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Sonnenberg suggested that restructuring the legislature would be the best way to close the divide between rural and urban Colorado.

“What are we afraid of?” he asked. “Letting the people of the state of Colorado vote and decide for themselves? Are we fearful that they don’t think this will be fair? What are we fearful of? What are we afraid of by putting this on the ballot?

“I’m asking you to not be afraid to pass this resolution,” he continued. “Let’s put this on the ballot and let the people of the state of Colorado decide what is the right governance for Colorado.”

Sonnenberg — who represents remote northeastern Colorado — said he finds it difficult to advocate for his constituents in the urban-leaning state legislature.

“We have people in rural Colorado frustrated that their voices aren’t heard…” he said. “This resolution sets a framework like our United States legislative branch.”

House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, said he is willing to entertain the idea of a land-based House. He understands, however, that restructuring the legislature in such a way could mean putting some lawmakers out of a job if they share a county with other representatives.

“Larimer County, we’re at four, that would drop to one,” he said of his own district. “Someone like me potentially wouldn’t come back. But if that gives rural Colorado a little more say in what’s going on, that may be worth taking a look at.”

DelGrosso said the legislature did a better job this year listening to rural Colorado. But he believes more of a voice could be given to constituents in lesser-known parts of the state.

“There are still a lot of folks in rural Colorado that feel there’s a lot of people out here, there’s a lot of counties, and maybe this will give us some more rural representation,” explained DelGrosso. “That’s still the whole premise behind it.”

But House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who represents Denver, the state’s most urban area, is shaking his head at just the thought of the proposal. For one thing, he believes the idea is simply unconstitutional, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of “one man, one vote.”

The premise is to maintain equal represented populations and to require legislatures to have districts that contain equal populations. It is the basis behind redistricting and reapportionment.

“If you’re allowing a county like Denver that has over 600,000 voters to be the equivalent of Yuma… that flies in the face of the constitution and the court rulings around one person, one vote,” explained Ferrandino.

But beyond the legal concerns, Ferrandino doesn’t believe the initiative is necessary. He points out that the legislature this year appropriated millions of dollars for rural Colorado for everything from operating courthouses to spurring economic development.

“There’s definitely representation from rural Colorado and there’s also a sensitivity from people in the metro area for the needs of rural Colorado,” said Ferrandino. “A lot of the rural areas is where we produce the food that we eat and so you need to be very sensitive to those issues.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com