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Counties could secede from state under lawmaker’s long-shot proposal

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, listens Monday as his proposal allowing New Mexico counties to pursue secession is formally read in on the Senate floor. He said the measure was prompted by a perceived “lack of respect toward southeast New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico has largely been a state divided by region when it comes to such issues as environmental regulations, pandemic-related school closures and gun rights laws.

But a proposal filed Monday by a Roswell Republican would take those divisions a step further by allowing counties to petition the Legislature to actually secede from the state – either to join a neighboring state or create a new state.

The proposed constitutional amendment, filed by Sen. Cliff Pirtle, likely faces long odds at the Roundhouse but could trigger debate about a deepening urban-rural political rift.

“It’s just a response to the lack of respect toward southeast New Mexico,” Pirtle said in a Monday interview. “It seems like more and more it’s the ideals of Albuquerque that become law.”

He acknowledged the proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 15, is at least partly intended to send a message, but he said it could come into play if approved.

“I think there are some counties that are to that point,” Pirtle said.

However, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, defended Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and expressed doubts that any New Mexico county would actually pursue secession.

“I think, frankly, it’s a silly resolution, but it will give us a chance to talk about it, and I intend to do just that,” Stewart told the Journal.

If approved by the Legislature and statewide voters, the proposed constitutional amendment would allow counties to launch an effort to formally disengage from New Mexico through a unanimous vote of county commissioners – or a voter petition drive.

However, at least three contiguous counties would have to be in favor of leaving New Mexico, and in the case of counties wanting to join another state, at least one of the three counties involved would have to border the neighboring state.

In addition, both the Legislature and Congress would also have to ratify such a move – along with the neighboring state.

Disenchanted residents of rural counties in other Western states – such as Colorado, California and Washington – have also pursued secession in recent years, though such efforts have been ultimately unsuccessful.

In New Mexico, much of the regional discontent is based in the state’s Republican-leaning southeastern region, which is sometimes known as Little Texas due to cultural similarities and a reliance on the oil industry as a top economic driver.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has deepened the divide between southeastern New Mexico and the rest of the state, as some law enforcement and local government officials have flouted business restrictions imposed by Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Specifically, one Roswell city councilor came under scrutiny last year for removing a temporary fence around a local basketball court. And New Mexico’s top health official warned the Lea County county manager in May about possible legal action for suggesting businesses could reopen in violation of state orders.

But the divide isn’t due solely to disagreements over COVID-19 response efforts.

Pirtle, a dairy farmer who was first elected to the Senate in 2012, said bills filed at the Roundhouse this year to ban animal trapping on public lands and restrict pesticide use represent a “direct attack” on many rural New Mexicans’ way of life.

But backers of such measures say they’re necessary to protect the state’s environment – and its citizens – with an eye toward the future.

Stewart, for her part, also said there’s a ready alternative for residents of southeastern New Mexico who no longer want to be part of the state.

“If you like Texas better, just pack up your bags and move – it’s not that far,” Stewart said.

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