DUMAS, Texas (KXAN) — Fields full of cattle and cotton. Wind power for miles. An ocean of oil.
Compared to the rest of the state, the Texas Panhandle is like a different world. On its northern edge in the small town of Dumas lives a man who came close to securing that distinction.
"It was like we were at war,” said
David Swinford, a former Republican state lawmaker. “Everything that was happening was against us."
For 20 years, Swinford represented this sparse area in the Texas House. As a freshman in 1991, he made a bold move - the latest of its kind - that began after unfolding the state's official roadmap and realizing the Panhandle was detached.
"It was proof that they didn't like us, because they didn't even put us on the map,” Swinford said, pointing to a section of that old map separating the Panhandle into a lower corner, squeezing the rest of the state’s geography on the main portion. "That sort of ticks me off."
Combined with school concerns, redistricting dangers and the threat of tax increases - Swinford said he had the ammunition he needed for a bill to secede from the state.
"My area's had it,” he recalled. “My people are madder than an old wet hen, and it's time to do something."
The legislation got a lot of attention but never made it out of committee. With a proposed capital in Amarillo, the move would have separated Texas’ 26 most northern counties into their own state – something Swinford called “Old Texas.”
However, his idea stemmed from something beyond just the Panhandle. He recalled the movement of “Texas divisionism” from his childhood history books when crafting the bill.
The concept dated back to a provision included in the resolution admitting the former Republic of Texas into the Union in 1845. It allowed the division of Texas into as many as five states.
Proponents of the idea say – as the second largest and second most populous state in the U.S. – Texas is too big to have one government. In addition, there is the argument that several states would afford Texans more power at the federal level, as each state would have two U.S. Senators.
Largely seen as a fringe movement today, Texas’ division was often proposed in the early decades of statehood. In fact after the Civil War when Texas drew up its Constitution, some citizens also drew up one for the State of West Texas.
"That's the only time when it's been seriously debated before the legislature that I know of,” said Dr. Jesus de la Teja, former Texas State Historian and current professor at Texas State University. “But if there's one thing that the past teaches us is that it's unpredictable."
Many historians like de la Teja have said dividing the state might be bittersweet. The new states would likely find it costly to set up a new government. And residents in the new states would find themselves with fewer seats in the U.S. house – possibly just one in the case of the thinly-populated Panhandle.
"What kind of political power does that really provide you?” said de la Teja.
The original, remaining Texas might suffer, as well. For instance, getting rid of the Panhandle would mean sacrificing some of the state’s biggest economic benefits, a vast prison system and the nation’s only nuclear weapons plant.
De la Teja also said many scholars even doubt the legality of such a move. If it was permitted, it would likely require approval from the state legislature, then a decision by voters. After that, it would need Congressional approval and perhaps even an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Swinford’s bill outlined that same process. Though his constituents were already calling him “Governor of Old Texas” at that time, he said he never believed the Panhandle would actually become its own state. But he hoped his proposal would make an impact.
"They changed the map, and Ann Richards gave me the first copy of the map with Old Texas back on top,” he laughed.
More importantly, it drew attention to the Panhandle's problems, gave locals a leader and perhaps left a message for today's lawmakers.
"If they have to do something extreme, that's what they should do,” he added.
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