New mandates fuel threats of secession in rural Colo.

Source: Daniel Bush, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, July 22, 2013

A group of Colorado county commissioners are so miffed by the state’s new renewable energy requirements and other regulations that they are mulling a plan to secede.

Commissioners from 10 counties in rural northeastern Colorado were irate when Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) last month exempted municipally owned utilities from a law that requires rural electric cooperatives with more than 100,000 customers to double their renewable energy standard to 20 percent by 2020 (Greenwire, June 5).

The law, the commissioners say, would increase electricity costs in Weld County and other rural parts of the state, where most of Colorado’s renewable energy is produced, but wouldn’t affect ratepayers in more heavily populated areas.

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said the bill — as well as a new ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines — penalizes rural residents who don’t have a strong voice in a state Legislature that is dominated by representatives from urban and suburban districts.

“The issue comes down to fairness,” Conway said. “If you’re going to advocate for renewable energy, why exempt out your municipal utilities for this mandate? It’s hypocritical.”

The law includes a provision capping annual rate increases at 2 percent. Hickenlooper estimated that electricity bills on average would increase by $2 a month. But critics said the costs of implementing the mandate would be much higher and accused the Legislature of passing a one-sided law.

“The bill was developed in secret with no input from Colorado’s electric cooperatives or rural constituents,” said Lee Boughey, a spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association energy cooperative, which supplies power to rural electric co-ops across Colorado.

Earlier this month at the state’s annual county commissioners conference, Conway proposed forming a new state called North Colorado. The idea quickly caught on in northeastern Colorado but was roundly rejected by critics who said it would be too costly to implement and ignores demographic shifts that aren’t likely to change.

“They’re stomping their feet and trying to find a way to get some attention and get around the fact” that the state’s political power has shifted to Denver, Boulder and other cities, said Jason Bane, a spokesman for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group that supported the energy mandate. “You’re seeing a lot of frustration from people who just don’t want to accept that new reality.”

Despite the obstacles, several counties appear willing to vote on the secession issue this fall. But Conway acknowledged that the plan faces an uphill battle. He said his group of commissioners is also eyeing a more realistic proposal to give rural residents more political representation in state government.

The state’s 35 Senate seats are currently apportioned on the basis of population. Roughly half of the districts are concentrated in a few counties along the Front Range that are home to the state’s biggest cities — Denver, its suburbs, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. The sparsely populated counties that make up northeastern Colorado are grouped together in a single Senate district.

Under a plan put forth by Phillips County Administrator Randy Schafer, the Senate would expand to 64 members — the number of counties in Colorado. Each county would have one senator, in a system modeled on the U.S. Senate. The state’s House of Representatives would remain unchanged.

The proposal was approved at an informal county commissioners meeting last week. The group has started searching for lawmakers to sponsor a bill that would put the changes on the statewide ballot next November. If no one steps forward, Schafer said supporters will try to gather enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot through a process known as citizens initiative, which resulted last year in the legalization of marijuana.

“We don’t have a voice,” Schafer said. “Things that have been happening in Colorado don’t represent rural Colorado. They don’t represent our values and needs.”