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Editorial: NM secession spat reveals our state’s deep rural-urban divisions

“(Secession is) just a response to the lack of respect toward southeast New Mexico.”

– Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell

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

– Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque

While it’s easy to dismiss a secession measure introduced by state Sen. Cliff Pirtle as silly, doing so would only ignore – and feed – the deep political and cultural divisions that exist in our state.

New Mexico has always had a rural-urban political divide. Lawmakers from Albuquerque’s metro area combined with legislators in the nearby seat of government in Santa Fe are usually able to carry the day when the votes are tabulated in the Roundhouse. And with others they are working on an ambitious and progressive agenda.

In recent years, months and even days, the divisions between oil-producing southeast New Mexico and urban New Mexico have deepened with the passage of gun restriction laws, the imposition of business and school closures due to the pandemic, and perceived threats to the oil industry. Pirtle says proposals introduced this year to ban animal trapping on public lands and restrict pesticide use are a “direct attack” on N.M.’s rural way of life.

That’s not a new concern. But until last week, no state lawmaker had introduced a secession measure, according to research conducted for the Journal by senior legislative librarian Joanne Vandestreek. We made it through 109 years of statehood before hitting this point.

Pirtle’s Senate Joint Resolution 15 would allow New Mexicans to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment paving the path for counties to secede. Counties would have to first launch an effort to formally disengage from New Mexico through a unanimous vote of county commissioners or a voter petition drive.

That does not seem out of the realm of possibility given the recent tensions between county commissions in southeast New Mexico and Santa Fe. Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh says leaders in Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties feel “rejected, unvalued and disrespected.”

Under Pirtle’s bill, at least three contiguous counties would have to be in favor of leaving, and in the case of counties wanting to join another state, at least one of the three would have to border the neighboring state.

The proposed constitutional amendment would require ratification from Congress, in addition to approval from N.M. voters, both houses of the state Legislature and any neighboring state the N.M. counties want to join. In other words, it has little chance – although numerous Virginian counties were able to secede and form West Virginia in 1863.

Pirtle acknowledges his proposal is at least partly intended to send a message, but others say it’s a childish tantrum that only adds to the existing divisions. Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, embodied that viewpoint when she said she doubted any New Mexico county would actually pursue secession.

The relationship between “Little Texas” in southeast New Mexico and the rest of the state is akin to a bad relationship, with one party expressing a desire to leave and the other saying “You’re not going anywhere.” If it were a marriage – it essentially is – we’d need counseling.

Stewart’s smart aleck remark to “pack up your bags and move” was insensitive and shortsighted. We expect better from a career educator and certainly the Senate’s new leader. And Pirtle’s bill is grandstanding at its worse, like a child stomping his feet in frustration.

But it can not be dismissed out of hand. Not considering where we are today. The Legislature and especially the Senate are supposed to be deliberative bodies where the people’s voices are heard. Is New Mexico still a state that takes pride in its diversity of cultures and opinions?

Or one that tells folks who speak up “there’s the door?”

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.