Require geographic diversity for state-wide initiatives

Essay by Ellen Miller

Colorado politics – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

A lot of us would like to believe that the Rocky Mountain West is mostly rural, with people living in little towns or at most small cities. People would spend enough time in the sparsely populated regions so everybody would understand to some degree how the economics of rural survival happen.

But that isn’t the case. The vast majority of the Colorado population lives between Fort Collins and Pueblo. Arizona is overshadowed by Phoenix and Tucson. New Mexico by the Albuquerque-Santa Fe axis and Utah by the Salt Lake City area. Only Montana and Wyoming thus far have been spared the scourge of a major metropolitan area.

The political result is that urban dwellers have the clout and the numbers to make decisions that run the entire state. And since a lot of those folks are refugees from urban hellholes in the Midwest and East, they don’t have a clue about life in the boondocks. Nor do they care. If the family poodle makes a tasty snack for a mountain lion, they want to shoot the lion. And, God forbid, when a rancher on the Western Slope wants to trap predators who are killing his livestock, the urban response has been to try to ban it.

The Colorado legislature this year didn’t go along with that, instead putting authority over trapping under the state agriculture secretary instead of the division of wildlife. The Ag honcho, Craig rancher Tom Kourlis, is putting together an advisory panel to draw up guidelines.

The urban environmental groups are already outraged, saying he’s stacking the group with the usual suspects and won’t let the anti-trappers run everything. And they’re right. That’s exactly what Kourlis is doing. So there’s a move afoot to put a trapping ban on the election ballot.

Signatures will be gathered and well-funded urban advertising campaigns will be conducted. Given the demographics of Colorado these days, there’s a good chance the ban will pass. Most ranchers will then revert to “shoot shovel, and shut up” as their primary methods of predator control.

The problem is that ballot initiatives require only sheer numbers of signatures — just short of 50,000 to qualify. There’s no requirement that they be spread evenly across a widely different state.

Oregon is attempting to change this. Folks there will be voting this fall on a proposal to require that all statewide initiatives qualify by obtaining supporting signatures throughout the state, using Oregon’s five congressional districts as boundaries.

If we did that in Colorado, initiative supporters would have to get one-sixth of their signatures from each of the six congressional districts, or the item wouldn’t get on the ballot. Supporters of a trapping ban, for instance, would have to drum up 16.6 percent of their signatures from the 3rd Congressional District where only Pueblo and Grand Junction pass for metropolitan areas. (And you’ll get plenty of argument whether either city even remotely qualifies as metropolitan.) Just imagine a petition-carrier trying to get the morning coffee crowd at the Meeker cafe to sign.

The plentiful numbers of urban voters who populate Denver and Boulder wouldn’t be able to dictate agricultural policy for places they don’t even drive by, let alone understand.

It would change the dynamics of statewide initiatives, which for my money have gotten too plentiful for anybody’s good anyway. At least an idea would have to garner support from all corners of the state, not just the densely populated metro area.

It might make too much sense, but at least it’s worth a try.

Based in Grand Junction, Ellen Miller covers the Western Slope for The Denver Post.