(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
That's the first word that came to mine as I read my email from the Centennial Institute's John Andrews, introducing the Weld County Model of governance. The first sentence was filled with the descriptors "big", "oil-rich", "self-confident", "the birthplace of last year's secession movement". How could I possibly stop myself from perusing the bravado? Particularly when the letter head included the words *faith* *family* *freedom* *future*?
Weld County: the birthplace of the 51st state. Bootstraps. Independence.
If only it was that simple. Or true. If only this utopian style of governance could be replicated across every county in Colorado! Although it would be mathematically impossible to achieve such a statewide fete based on the Weld County Model – why be confused by facts when one can be seduced by the patriotic words of Mr. Andrews?
I tend to dismiss any narrative of independence in these contexts (in particular, neo-conservative institutes offering to sell me a $20 hard copy of their in-depth analysis). The fact is, we live in a very interdependent world. A world where Weld County beef finds its way to Japan, Weld County mozzarella adorns pizza pies from coast-to-coast, Weld County oil permeates a global market – yet Weld County severance taxes can't find their way from Greeley to Denver.
Not only does Weld County benefit from the largess of the federal treasury in its agricultural sector to the tune of $450 million in the years 1995-2012 ($146 million of those dollars paid to farmers to retire their land from production), they are part of a fabric of agricultural communities across the eastern plains (the proposed 51st state) that were the recipients of a collective $3.64 billion in that same time frame.
Before you come to the conclusion that I'm anti-agriculture or anti-safety nets, let me say this: I believe in safety nets, whether those safety nets are targeted at farmers, struggling families or elderly. I'm simply unwilling to promote the faux idea that any one of us are authentically independent. The magic isn't in our mythical independence, but in our rich history of supporting the commons. Whether it's roads, interstate highways, the rural electric system, our hydro and water storage projects, education, public safety – to name a few – we built that. And with that infrastructure came a bounty of opportunities for enterprising Americans to do what we do best: invent. create. solve big problems.
The problems with Mr. Andrew's pitch on Weld County became even more problematic in my mind as I read the narrative. A quick search on ProPublica reveals the hundreds of millions of federal dollars flowing in to Weld County. Did Mr. Andrews miss the fact that Weld County received over $220 million in stimulus funds – the very program he loathes? Mr. Andrews approach? A tax holiday. The math on that position becomes problematic when you consider that someone needs to be paying taxes so the $200 million-plus can flow from Washington in to the Weld County treasuries.
The Centennial Institute's study, "Grassroots Government in Colorado: How Does Weld County Compare?" compares Weld County governance to that of Larimer, Boulder, El Paso, Pueblo and Mesa Counties. It does not address the secession issue, which Mr. Andrews described as a notion that was mainly a thought experiment whose political and fiscal merits weren't within the purview of the study. For those of us who saw the sheer folly of that disastrous, political stunt – it seems almost impossible to bifurcate the secession issue from the context of the comparisons to – and arguments for – his 'Weld County Model' discussion.
What the study seems to be lacking is a critical review of the state severance tax issue and how the current structure of our present law has allowed Weld County to collect $264 million in severance taxes alone – more than 50% of their total tax revenue – while denying the State of Colorado any revenue from said activity.
The commissioners want to make sure we understand they are operating entirely within Colorado law. A law made so purposely complex that only industry lawyers can fully understand its application; the same legion of industry lawyers who now want us to believe it would be a burden (and impossible) for them to handle the complexity of dealing with local jurisdiction on oil and gas developments. Industry lawyers whose employers benefit from a severance tax rate that is near half of our states to the north and south of us.
It's why Wyoming has a $6.2 billion trust fund and spends its revenues on road and water infrastructure while Colorado privatizes roadways and its railroad bridge infrastructure collapses. It's why Montana provides statewide property tax relief for its residents while Coloradans are asked to pass a billion dollar tax increase for education. All the while, Colorado's one-time, finite resources are being mined to extinction, adding billions to oil companies balance sheets – and millions to a select handful of counties.
The state severance tax revenues have become so miniscule ($118.3 million) in the context of the state budget ($10.6 billion) that most people at the capitol simply pay little attention to the number; no one sees it as a lasting revenue. Yet, one would be led to believe that our entire economy would come crashing down if we didn't perpetuate this current paradigm.
Perhaps a better name than 'Greeley' model would be 'Gangsta'.
Back to the points being promoted by Mr. Andrews. Yes, Weld County is rich: they are rich in agriculture – the wealthiest agricultural county east of the Continental Divide and fourth wealthiest in the entire nation; they are rich in 'big oil'; they've mastered the art of trapping those energy tax dollars locally. To counter Mr. Andrews original point, the fact they have this measure of wealth makes them unlike almost every other rural county in the nation. An economic paradigm impossible to replicate.
This argument should have been more broadly advocated as 'big energy' – and how every county in the state – every one of them – should enjoy the benefits of their energy resource. You see Mr. Andrews, energy isn't just the black goo and methane extracted from the Earth's crust. Every county in this state has an energy resource equivalent to Weld County, whether its eastern plains wind, San Luis Valley solar or west slope hydro and biomass. The good news? Those resources will transcend production far beyond the day when Weld County's resources no longer exist. The bad news? While you promote your ideas of independence and liberty, free markets and Yankee ingenuity – you purposely dismiss our infinite, long-term resources. While you rail against the Third Industrial Revolution, you are silent on the subsidies attributable to your energy. You promote the idea of 'grass roots governance' while summarily dismissing Local Control. You worship at the altar of low taxes while our infrastructure crumbles. I grew up in a Republican household – the old kind. There is almost nothing about what Mr. Andrews is promoting that reflects the political values of the family household of my childhood: Conserving our resources. Fair and equitable taxation. Clean air and water treated as assets of 'the commons'. A loathing for monopoly power. The best governance being local governance.
He'd like to brag about Weld County. I'd prefer we build bridges, both literally and figuratively. And wind turbines. And solar panels. And support new ways of thinking about the crops we grow in Colorado. And how we build good, lasting jobs for the 99% of Coloradans who did not share in the bounty of the latest economic expansion. Let's build an Innovation Economy and stop promoting the false notion there is an actual 'War on Rural Colorado'. There isn't. Let's celebrate, not deny, the interdependence between rural and urban Colorado.
With all due respect to Mr. Andrew's point-of-view, while he pontificates from his mythical, mayor-for-life easy chair in downtown Backbone, Colorado – his imaginary hometown of the heart – the rest of us have to live in the real world.
What we need is a "We" model, not a "Weld model".