A 51st State, Called Liberty, Would Have
by Pia Hallenberg
The State of Liberty would be comprised of the 20 counties of Eastern Washington knotted by conservative politics,
wide-open landscapes and a shared reliance on natural resources and government services.
It's easy to dismiss House Joint Memorial 4000 with an eye roll and a "here we go again."
The measure proposes to split Washington in half and create a new state called Liberty.
Similar legislation proposed in 1915, 1985, 1991, 2005 and 2015 never gained much traction.
But does this year of political upheaval and civil unrest portend a different outcome?
Supporters of Liberty aren't the type to back down.
"Broadcasting live from the capital of free Washington, and the future capital of the State of Liberty, Spokane Valley," is how 51st state champion Rep. Matt Shea often introduces his podcasts. "We are making this real."
He boasts that the new state would "rival Texas in prosperity" and lead to lower taxes.
The west side of Washington, he warns, will turn into its own "socialist utopia" and collapse without the rugged mindset and agricultural backbone of Eastern Washington.
Anyone who's visited both sides of the Cascade Mountains notices the difference in politics, economy, climate and traffic. One is the Evergreen State. The other could be coined the Sagebrush State.
The question of splitting the state has always boiled down to whether the eastern half could prosper without the financial support of Seattle.
Supporters are confident and point to a region rich in agriculture and electricity.
Opponents say Liberty would suffer without the taxes generated by some of the world's best companies such as Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon.
Liberty would have great colleges and hospitals, both public and private.
But the 51st state would be landlocked without easy access to the shipping docks of Seattle, though it would have Columbia and Snake River ports that link to Portland and the Pacific.
And though Liberty would have far fewer people, it would gain national political clout and rival or surpass many other Western states in population and wealth. It would be larger than Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. It would continue to capture billions of federal dollars to clean up the Hanford nuclear site.
While Shea advocates making Spokane Valley the new state capital, others aren't so sure.
"I think it should be in Moses Lake," said Spokane Valley Councilman Ed Pace, who is so excited about the formation of Liberty that he's asked the Spokane Valley City Council to take a stand on it.
Carol Paul, the Lincoln County GOP chairman and another supporter of the 51st State, said one problem with Washington is that Olympia is physically too far away for many residents, and ideologically out of touch with most of the state.
"The capital should be in Moses Lake, Ephrata or Ellensburg," Paul said. "The capital should be accessible and centrally located."
Spokane is not be in the initial running for capital, perhaps leading to the city's cool reception to Liberty.Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart likened the idea of secession to shooting oneself in the foot.
The main industries in Liberty would be agriculture, manufacturing, education, trade, and government infrastructure and services.
In 2014, for instance, the value of the apple industry was almost $3 billion, according to the Washington Apple Commission's Todd Fryhover.
"We employ over 55,000 people during peak season," Fryhover said. He added that there clearly is a disconnect between the east and the west sides of the Cascades, but would prefer another solution than secession.
"We do great things over here but we probably don't sing our own praises enough," Fryhover said. "We don't go over to the west side and educate people on where our food comes from."
So, would Liberty be a prosperous state?
"It's tough to say if a new state would have a viable economy," said Jamie Rossman, a policy adviser for the Washington state Department of Commerce.
Liberty's economy would depend heavily on exports, but would also retain a much lower cost of living, compared to the west side.
"It wouldn't have a major port, which can be a problem when you depend on export," Rossman said. "But there are so many other factors to take into consideration like education and infrastructure."
Eastsiders often complain that they pay taxes to Olympia, but get little back because of spending on Seattle-area freeways and Olympia bureaucracy.
According to a 2012 study by an Evergreen State College research team, King County produces 42 percent of the state's tax revenues – but receives less than 26 percent back in the form of state benefits. That's a return of 62 cents on the dollar.
Spokane County receives more back than it pays in: $1.35 for every dollar, according to the study. Rural Ferry County gets $3.16 back for every dollar it sends to Olympia.
The numbers – and recent election results – suggest Liberty is about ideology more so than cherry picking parts of the state to make a stronger economy.
Paul said she's tired of what she calls "Western Washington's harebrained ideas."
"A benefit would be that we can govern ourselves, instead of being governed by initiatives instigated by anyone who can get enough signatures on a petition," Paul said, "and make it sound like a good idea while hiding the snake in the grass."
Pace said it's a good exercise in evaluating how the state is governed now and what could change. He'd like for the cities to have more freedom when it comes to economic development.
"I'd like for us to have a business climate that's more like Idaho," Pace said. "Idaho has a lower B&O tax and a lower minimum wage. If we had a 51st state we could create an environment that's better for business."
Pace said maybe the question isn't how Liberty would pay for a service level akin to Washington's, but which services could be narrowed.
"What would it look like to have a state that lives within its means; that's what we should look at," Pace said.
Rep. Bob McCaslin, Jr., R-Spokane Valley, is one of the co-sponsors of the measure. At a GOP town hall meeting in Spokane Valley two weeks ago, McCaslin said he co-sponsored House Joint Memorial 4000 in memory of his dad, longtime state senator Bob McCaslin Sr., who really believed in the idea.
"I like that the bill has started a conversation," McCaslin said, "and brought some different people together."
So does Liberty have a chance this year?
"Absolutely not," McCaslin said. "It doesn't have a chance."
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