DENVER — As a bar owner, Tom Mathers has seen his share of brawls, but those are nothing compared with the battles he’s waged at the state capitol.
“I’ve never lost a bar fight, but in 11 years as a county commissioner, I’ve never won a fight with the state,” said Mathers, who sits on the Moffat County Commissioners.
That was one reason Mathers voted Tuesday in favor of the 51st State Initiative, a ballot measure on carving a separate state from rural northern Colorado counties. The commissioners approved the proposal by a vote of 2-1, making Moffat the ninth county to add the referendum to the Nov. 5 ballot.
“The Front Range makes all the decisions for the state, and we have no representation in rural Colorado,” said Mathers, owner of Mathers Club in Craig. “They’re constantly making new rules that affect us and not them, and they’re killing our economy.”
The Moffat County vote comes as something of a milestone for the movement. So far Moffat, located in the state’s northwestern corner, is the only Western Slope county to join the effort.
“It’s kind of an island out there in that it’s not attached to the northeast area,” said Jeffrey Hare, spokesman for the 51st State Initiative. “We think this will spread down the Western Slope, just maybe not quickly.”
Hare said at least three more counties—Grand, Elbert and Morgan–are considering adding the 51st state proposal to their November ballots before the Sept. 5 deadline.
The ballot measure is designed to gauge support for the proposal to create a 51st state, tentatively named Northern Colorado. The group plans to bring the election results to the attention of the state legislature, which would have to vote to send the proposal to Congress for approval.
Gov. John Hickenlooper isn’t thrilled with the idea, telling the Craig Daily Press last week that the movement undermines the state’s diversity. Rural lawmakers argue that their interests have been undermined for years by the liberal Denver-Boulder corridor.
“Many of us here in Moffat County feel marginalized, feel like we’ve been disenfranchised by what’s happening in the state capitol by the Denver and Boulder elite,” said Moffat County Commissioner John Kincaid. “It’s time to stand up to the soft tyranny we’ve been experiencing for the last several years.”
Proponents of the statehood drive bring up the state legislature’s gun-control bills and doubling of the renewable-energy mandate on rural areas, but Kincaid said Moffat Count is still feeling the effects of a 2010 law, House Bill 1365, which compels power plants to move from coal to natural gas.
Moffat County is home to about 13,000 residents and three coal mines, and “this war on coal is costing us jobs,” said Kincaid.
The Craig Daily Press came out against the idea in an editorial, saying the commissioners should try instead to work with the governor.
“We understand the feeling of disconnect,” said newspaper in an Aug. 24 editorial. “What we want to see is the commissioners be proactive by opening discussions with lawmakers from the Front Range, not reactive by separating themselves from the state.”
Still, interest in the statehood idea is spreading quickly in rural communities. Plans are afoot to discuss the proposal at Club 20, Colorado Counties Inc., and the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.
For those who call the 51st state path unrealistic, organizers say they’re also interested in exploring the idea of redrawing the state Senate by giving each of the state’s 64 counties one senator, which would increase the clout of rural communities.
At Tuesday’s meeting in Moffat County, Mathers said interest in the proposal was high among constituents who packed the commission room.
“They were hanging out the widows,” said Mathers. “The support was there.”