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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Happy or angry about a plan to make E. Washington its own state? Don’t be.

OLYMPIA – One of the oldest ideas conceived by conservative Eastern Washington legislators to tweak their more liberal counterparts is getting some extra attention this week.

Spokane Valley Reps. Matt Shea and Bob McCaslin, along with fellow Republican Rep. David Taylor of Moxee, have proposed splitting Washington in two and renaming the eastern half the state of Liberty. 

But House Joint Memorial 4000 has about as much chance of getting through the 2017 Legislature as it did in 2015, 2005, 1991, 1985 … or 1915.

That doesn’t mean the proposal, which is among a few dozen legislative ideas prefiled this week for the upcoming session, isn’t getting under the skin of some opponents. After hearing reports of the proposal to have the Legislature ask incoming President Donald Trump and Congress to create a new state for Eastern Washington, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart fumed via news release, that somebody needs to say what an awful idea this is. So he did. “It’s like literally standing up and saying Eastern Washington needs to shoot itself in the foot.”

That means Shea, McCaslin and Taylor can count coup for HJM 4000 even if it ends on the same legislative trash heap as its predecessors.

The Legislature can’t split the state in half by itself. A proposal like HJM 4000 is a way to formally ask the president and Congress to do something, but whether they would do it is up to them. Congress hasn’t created a new state out of an existing state since the Civil War, when West Virginia wanted to stay with the Union and was carved out of Virginia, which had seceded. Other states, including California and Texas, also have movements from time to time to split themselves up. Check the map; they’re still intact.

HJM 4000 is like most of the previous proposals as far as the new state’s boundaries, splitting Washington along the crest of the Cascade Range. 

Most previous efforts left the name of the proposed new state up to the imagination of Congress, although a few have suggested Lincoln, Jefferson or Madison. 

Legislative proposals to “split the state at the Cascades” date back to at least 1915, when Sen. Richard Hutchinson, another Spokane Republican, introduced a joint memorial. News accounts at the time said the idea was about a half century old, although whether it got as far as a formal joint memorial isn’t clear from those reports.

For much of the state’s history, there has been a rivalry between more rural East and more urban West. In the last 30 years that may have become more pronounced politically as the counties east of the Cascades have voted Republican for president, governor and Congress, while counties to the west have trended Democratic. Because there are more voters on the West Side, the state has had a Democratic governor since 1985, cast its electors for the Democratic presidential nominee since 1988 and sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate since 2001. 

East Side legislators often complain their constituents’ issues get short shrift in Olympia. But most proposals to split the state generate statistics from West Side Democrats that most Eastern Washington counties currently get more in services than they pay in taxes, so a new state would have to tax more, or provide less.

Among the most persistent proponents of separating Eastern Washington into its own state was the late Sen. Bob McCaslin, another Spokane Valley Republican and the father of the current memorial’s co-sponsor. He introduced it several times, and his 1991 proposal so torqued some West Side Democrats that they came up with a snarky counter that might be described as a “go and good riddance” proposal. 

It suggested the counties east of the Cascades be declared a territory until they could work up to being a state, declare the state tree the telephone pole, the state fruit the crabapple, the state motto “Well, I’ll be dammed,” and send the university in Pullman to the Big Sky Conference since it couldn’t beat the bigger university on the West Side. (The Cougars actually beat the Huskies four times in the previous 10 games, but lawmakers are rarely sticklers for such details.)

Neither proposal got a hearing, let alone a vote.

The farthest any state-splitting proposal has gone in the last 30 years was Senate Joint Memorial 8002, which was sponsored by the elder McCaslin in 2001. It received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee – where McCaslin was the ranking Republican – and was passed to the full Senate, where it did not come up for a vote.

In 2015, Shea and Taylor proposed the standard joint memorial, and joined McCaslin and several other Republicans to propose two different bills. One would have created a task force to split Washington east and west, the other would have created a task force with Oregon to split both states so that the western halves of each would be joined into a single state, and the eastern halves into another state. None got a hearing.

For all the comments and news coverage HJM 4000 has generated, it will likely receive the same fate in the 2017-18 Legislature, where the House has Democrats holding a two-seat majority, just as they did in 2015-16.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.