State Senator Bob Morton, a Republican from the Eastern Washington town of Orient (pop. 115), has a crazy idea. It's laughable, really. Unless you've been studiously ignoring our local newspapers in recent weeks (and who could blame you), you've probably heard about it. The senator from Ferry County wants to split Washington State in two. A clean break, along the line of the Cascades. The 19 counties to the west, mostly urban and suburban, with a hefty majority of the state's population and a strong liberal inclination, would become one state. The 20 counties to the east, mostly rural, mostly conservative, would become America's 51st state (or maybe 52nd, but more on that later).

It's laid out in Senate Joint Resolution 8009, which received a hearing (but no vote) in the Senate Government Operations and Elections Committee on February 22. Morton wasn't the only one who thought asking the feds to let Eastern Washington go its own way was a good idea; SJR 8009 had 10 other sponsors. Nine were Republicans. The other legislator who liked the idea was a surprise: Senator Adam Kline of Seattle, an unabashed liberal who is--and this is all too rare in Olympia--willing to think outside the box, signed on as the only Democratic supporter.

Still, it was an absurd idea, right? The self-important bloviators at the state's newspapers thought so. The Seattle Times, in a typically haughty, father-knows-best editorial on February 19, dismissed supporters of Morton's proposal as "kids" (the Times is addicted to this particular put down). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, not to be outdone, slagged supporters of the idea, east and west, as "feuding siblings." P-I columnist Joel Connelly took it upon himself to tell Eastern Washingtonians they should be grateful for all the good stuff the West has done for them. And a columnist for the Spokesman-Review snarkily suggested naming the new state Reagan as he dismissed the idea as "silly."

In other words, Morton may have provoked discussion with his idea, but only of the pointless variety. The typical response: Make a few witless comments about how kooky it all is, followed a perfunctory call for better communication between East and West. No one in a position of real power either in government or media took Morton seriously. That's too bad, because Morton, who has offered the proposal before, is "very serious" about the idea. He argues there are good economic reasons to think about splitting up, and he added that the gulf of "custom, culture, and lifestyle" between East and West is too wide to be bridged with a few can't-we-all-just-get-along conversations.

Senator Morton has a point. I know because I made a short trip to his part of Eastern Washington last week, where I talked to people in the small towns of Stevens and Ferry Counties. Some people liked the idea of splitting up, some were skeptical, but almost all agreed that the West dominates the East, and they don't like it.

Too bad for them, right?

In fact, it's too bad for us. The reaction on this side of the state to Morton's idea goes something like this: If they think it's good for them, then it must be bad for us. That's faulty logic, because this is not a zero-sum game. It is possible that they would end up better off without us, though that is debatable. Less debatable, however, is that we would be better off without them. We would not only save money--as Kline argues, the wealthier West tends to subsidize the poorer East--but we would consolidate our power, creating one of the most progressive states in the nation.

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The first things you notice about far-northeastern Washington is that it is poor, big, and empty. The road north out of Spokane, State Route 395, is paved (unlike many roads in the region), a two-lane ribbon of blacktop flanked by scrubby farmland or public forest. Very occasionally you pass through a small town. Stevens County, which runs from just outside of Spokane all the way north to the Canadian border, contains 40,484 people spread over 2,481 square miles, a population density of about 16 people per square mile. (King County, by contrast, has a density of 780 people per square mile.) The county seat, Colville, has 5,000 inhabitants and boasts a few reasonable restaurants, a library, an excellent coffee shop (I'm told), and that universal symbol of nouveau rural culture, a Wal-Mart.

The economy of the region is built around agriculture, timber, and mining, and it's not doing so well. Tricia Woods, at the Colville Chamber of Commerce, tells me about the mill in Republic closing, about a Northwest Alloys plant shutting down ("they could import from China cheaper," she says), and about the recent sale of Boise Cascade, which has created deep anxiety about the possibility of further job losses. There are bright spots in the local economy, including the growth of small entrepreneurial businesses that sell products over the web, but "a lot of people around here are [just] trying to make ends meet," she says. While Woods believes the secession idea is impractical, she admits that there are "a lot of independent-minded people in this area, a lot of private landowners who don't like being told by the government what to do."

I hear similar sentiments 10 miles down the road in Kettle Falls, a dusty little town that bills itself, on its welcome sign, as "1,550 Friendly People and One Grouch." At Ralph's Tavern locals reel off a litany of woes: a pocket-knife manufacturing plant that considered opening here but was driven off by state regulation, Burlington Northern's sale of the rail line to a smaller company that has led to the loss of relatively well-paid union jobs, the fact that the Wal-Mart in Colville is killing the mom-and-pop businesses in Kettle Falls. Years of drought have damaged the agricultural base and intensified battles between conservationists, who want to preserve water for salmon runs, and farmers. "I'm only planting half as much hay this year" because water is so scarce, one farmer sitting at the bar says.

Bob, a friendly and voluble retiree who has stopped in for an afternoon beer, sums up the local sentiment for me (he did not want to give his last name). A Rossi supporter, Bob says that people are angry about the governor's race--a sentiment I hear everywhere I stop--and believe that Christine Gregoire was elected by west-siders to protect their interests. He says that he and others believe that the West monopolizes the state's resources. The local schools are starved for funds, a situation he blames on the political power of Western legislators in Olympia. "Something is wrong with the politics in this state," he says. "Everything stays on the west side."

Ferry County, Senator Morton's home, makes Stevens County seem positively urban. The total Ferry County population is 7,300, making it the least dense county in the state with an average of only 3.3 people per square mile. It is also the poorest county in the state, with a per capita personal income of $17,437 in 2001, well under half of that in King County. Republic, the largest town (pop. 940), has the look and feel of a movie set from a John Ford Western. At City Hall, a faux log-cabin-style building on the main drag, police chief N. W. Merritt sits down with me in his cramped office. "I do agree with Senator Morton's bill," he says. "All the bills that are passed in this state are passed on the west side." He singles out the Growth Management Act (GMA), which he says may make sense on the west side of the state--"you guys are booming over there"--but place unnecessary burdens on rural areas like Ferry County, where the population of Republic has dropped in recent years.

Merritt echoes the primary complaint of east-siders, which is that they feel politically powerless. They're right. All 20 Eastern Washington counties voted for Dino Rossi. There hasn't been a U.S. Senator elected from the eastern half of the state since 1928. While Eastern Washington is overwhelmingly Republican, the Democratic politics of the more populous West dominates the political agenda. Out of 49 state senators, 38 represent Western Washington, and Morton points out that all nine state supreme court justices hail from Western Washington. "We are outvoted. We have no choice and we don't have a voice…. We get more regulations, more restrictions. We are slowly being choked down."

* * *

Eastern Washingtonians are right to feel they are dominated by a liberal coastal elite that doesn't understand them or care about their concerns, argues state Republican Party Chair Chris Vance. "What these people want are jobs," he says, but what they get is more dictates tailored to the West. "The GMA is a severe burden on small county governments. Is anybody really worried about growth in Ferry County?" The Democrats, he adds, have only themselves to blame for losing the support of working-class rural voters: "The Democratic Party used to be the party of the little guy," he says. "Now it's a party of elite Seattle environmentalists hanging around Kay Bullitt's house drinking Chardonnay. I say to liberals in Seattle, whatever happened to your concern for small family farms? What happened to Willie Nelson? What happened to Farm Aid? I'll tell you what happened. It was chic in the 1980s to worry about depressed rural areas in the country. Where did that go?"

Vance ignores the fact that while Republican elites may offer messages of cultural affinity with the rural poor, their actual policies strongly favor the rich, but he's right about Seattle liberals. And it may be that the best response to Vance is not more false expressions of concern by urban liberals for the rural poor (which come across as false and condescending), but a frank acknowledgment that the issues that divide us are not easily reconciled. During my visit to Eastern Washington, it became obvious that Morton is correct in his perception of stark, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences between East and West. The income disparity and the lack of political clout in Eastern Washington have bred a deep-seated resentment and suspicion of the West that feeds the growing political conservatism there. And though few are willing to admit it, it also breeds a growing dependency on handouts from the West.

The statistics don't lie. Projections for federal and state transportation funding between 2004 and 2013 show that King County will get back 84 cents on every dollar it provides for transportation funding, Pierce County will get only 80 cents, Snohomish County 88 cents, and Thurston County a mere 59 cents on the dollar. Meanwhile, large rural Eastern counties will get significantly more than they pay in: Stevens County will get $1.56 for every dollar they provide, Pend Oreille County, on the northern Idaho border, will get $2.60, and Ferry County will get a whopping $3.52. A 2001 report for the Senate Judiciary Committee showed that overall, Western Washington provided 82 percent of the state's transportation revenues but received only 78 percent of transportation expenditures; Eastern Washington, providing 18 percent of revenues, received 22 percent of expenditures. Eastern Washington also received more than its share of state K-12 education funding: 12 of the 13 counties that received the least state revenue per student were in the West (the exception was Spokane County).

That was the point Adam Kline wanted to make by supporting Morton's resolution. "We're subsidizing Eastern Washington," he says. "You know something? We don't mind. But what I do mind is that when we pay, and they benefit, they still complain. That's what bugs me. They're bitching about it."

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The bitching isn't likely to stop. The obvious disconnect between the East's self-image of libertarian self-reliance and the reality of their dependence on the West's largesse doesn't make them grateful. It just breeds further resentment. And as long as the East remains tied to us, it has a convenient excuse for its problems: It's all our fault. To his credit, Morton doesn't care much why the West agrees to let the East secede so long as it does. He even suggests, only half-jokingly, that in the future he'll try pitching the proposal differently. "I should have put on a different title that said, 'We want to be free and no longer be an albatross around the neck of Western Washington,'" he says.

He adds that free from the West, the East would prosper by becoming less regulated and more business friendly. Maybe, maybe not. The environmental consequences would likely be severe, and the loss of well-paid blue collar jobs is a national trend that is not likely to be reversed, and which is actually sped up by the Republican Party's anti-union, free-trade agenda. As one Democratic politician said to me when I asked what he thought of Eastern Washington seceding, "It wouldn't be creating the 51st state. It would be creating a new Third World country."

On the other hand, my suspicion is that if the East became its own state, it would actually become more liberal than it is now over time, at least with respect to fiscal issues. When the East no longer has us to blame for its under-funded schools, or decaying infrastructure, or shrinking social services, taxpayers in "Reagan" might be more inclined to support funding a government-provided safety net. A shift in this direction is already happening in some red states: The new issue of the Washington Monthly has a revealing story about conservative Republican governors who are repudiating the party's anti-tax mantra as they face the harsh fiscal calculus of trying to provide indispensable government services in a time of mounting budget shortfalls. But even if Easterners don't repudiate their dearly held ideological platitudes, and allow their part of the country to spiral down into a Hobbesian state of nature, that is really their choice--or their problem.

Meanwhile think of the opportunity for progress we would have if we were divorced from the East. A state of Western Washington would instantly become the most, or at least one of the most, liberal states in the country. It's not just that we would have more money to spend on ourselves, although that's not anything to sneeze at. Politically, the East may not have control, but it does have enough votes to put the brakes on our liberal agenda. Fixing the Viaduct? It might actually become possible if there wasn't a solid block of conservative legislators opposed to raising the gas tax. A gay civil rights bill? It would pass with ease. If the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage? No real threat of a constitutional amendment backlash. If a Bush-packed Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade? We would pass a pro-choice initiative without breaking a sweat.

It's true that if Eastern Washington became its own (red) state, we would be adding two new conservative senators to the national political mix. That though is easily solvable: Washington, D.C. has been pressing for statehood for years, but the idea has never moved forward because Republicans don't want to create another liberal state. So, in a modern Missouri Compromise, the feds could create two new states at once, a conservative one over here, and a liberal one in the other Washington.

If we believe in our liberal values, let's test them out. Senator Morton and his constituents believe in their conservative values, so let them test them out. It's just possible that both sides of the divide may end up better for the parting. Of course, it's not going to happen anytime soon. But that's not because Morton's idea is foolish. It's because the people who run this state are.

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