The Reality of Secession: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Colorado's county secession movement was sparked by a growing disconnect between rural and urban areas. Rather than forming a new state, it might make more sense to try to deal with that disconnect.

About one third of our more than 3,000 counties have reached a demographic tipping point where deaths exceed births, raising again an age-old question: How can dying counties afford the cost of governing?

It might seem that such a question might produce a discussion about reducing the number of counties and consolidating their operations. That isn't happening, but modern-day secession movements suggest that what might be more pressing is rethinking fiscal relations among states and their rural and urban components.

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The question of whether we have too many counties is not exactly new, of course. Eighty-five years ago, Farrington Carpenter, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated Colorado rancher who served as the first director of the Interior Department's Grazing Service, noted that at that time there were 20 counties in the state with populations of less than 5,000 and three with only a thousand. "How," he asked, "can such small counties afford the cost of a complete county government?"

Carpenter was calling for reducing the number of Colorado's counties from 63 to the original 17. It was not to be. Instead, as more of the state's counties have reached their tipping points, the debate has turned to consolidation of a different sort: Eleven rural counties voted last month on the question of seceding from the Centennial State and forming a new state that some suggested might be called "North Colorado." Weld County commissioners, who spearheaded the secession effort, said their movement was prompted by a growing disconnect between rural and urban areas.

The 51st State Initiative failed in six of the prairie counties, including Weld, the largest of the 11 jurisdictions. It succeeded in five, including Cheyenne County, which is among the most rapidly depopulating jurisdictions in the nation. (Separately, voters in Moffat County in the northwest corner of Colorado rejected a vote to secede and seek admission to neighboring Wyoming -- a proposal that garnered less than a western welcome from that state.)

The secession effort was largely symbolic: Even if voters in all of the counties had passed the measures, Colorado's legislature and Congress would have had to approve the creation of a new state -- a prospect considered unlikely. And even if those hurdles were to be overcome, the Colorado secession movement raised some thorny governance questions: What, for example, would be the status of state universities, such as the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley? What about state parks, state prisons, water laws, state-highway maintenance and tax policies? How would these smaller, diminishing counties make up for the loss of state K-12 education dollars, Medicaid funds and -- especially in light of this year's devastating floods -- disaster-recovery assistance?

Colorado's secession movement highlighted not only a divide between the state's rural and urban counties but also rural-urban tensions within some of the counties themselves. City officials in Greeley, the Weld County seat, kept some distance. While Greeley Mayor Tom Norton expressed sympathy with the impact of statewide decisions on his city's rural neighbors, he said he didn't agree that forming a new state was the best solution. "I support practical dialogue within our current system of government, respecting existing political and geographical boundaries and working with all involved toward practical compromises and solutions," Norton said.

Whether such a dialogue will occur remains to be seen. What does seem clear is that changing demographics mean that we will see the continued evanescence of many of our rural counties. The hard governing question is how to manage that transition.

Director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership at George Mason University