Why the Proposed New State of South California Won't Work

Leaving California? Mount Whitney in Inyo County | Creative Commons photo by Alan Vernon

The Riverside Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to support Supervisor Jeff Stone, author of a much-discussed proposal to split the state of California in two, in convening a statewide meeting to discuss radical measures to "fix" the state instead. According to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Stone, a Republican business owner from Temecula, still likes the idea of splitting California, though he admits it would be an arduous process. "I would like to keep on the agenda the idea of secession," Stone told the Press-Enterprise."We have hit a nerve with citizens who are fed up with business as usual in the state."

Under Stone's secession proposal, which made the rounds of national news this past week, 13 of California's 58 counties would be carved off to form the new state of "South California."

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The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to allow Stone to convene a statewide meeting to examine the idea of secession and other measures to address the state's problems, after receiving assurances that no county funds would be spent on that meeting. Each of Stone's four fellow Supervisors stated their opposition to the idea of secession before giving him the go-ahead.

Despite its proposed name the new state would stretch northward to include Mono County, meaning that parts of "South California" would be farther north than San Francisco, Sacramento, and Napa Valley. Rather than the usual north-south divide, the proposed split actually recognizes the other significant political faultline in the state, between the coast and the interior. The counties targeted for secession -- Fresno, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Tulare -- form a solid bloc along the state's easternmost fringe, and generally represent the most conservative of the state's counties. Of the thirteen, only San Bernardino and Imperial counties have more Democratic than Republican voters. Six of the included counties make up the core of the conservative San Joaquin Valley, while most of the remainder are in the Tea-Party-dominated California Desert.

Jeff Stone's new state of South California, in red. | Map by Chris Clarke

As KCET reported when Stone first announced his proposal, that political divide was precisely Stone's rationale for the split, as a response to the Golden State's increasing ungovernability. "Our taxes are too high, our schools don't educate our children well enough, unions and other special interests have more clout in the Legislature than the general public. It has to change," Stone said. (Under Stone's plan, members of South California's legislature would receive only $600 a month in stipends, arguably making them much more vulnerable to the monetary blandishments of special interests.)

Los Angeles County, the most populous of southern California's counties, is notable in its absence from the list. That's because Stone, by his own admission, sees LA County as a hotbed of tax-and-spend liberals. "LA has the same liberal views Sacramento does," Stone told reporters last week.

If the secession idea gains steam rather than getting submerged in the minutiae of organizing Stone's "fix California" meeting, it nonetheless faces some significant hurdles before it can become a reality. The idea would need to be ratified by the California Legislature and the US Congress, The addition of two reliably GOP seats to the Senate, as well as effects on the Electoral College and a number of other aspects of polarized political life, would likely stick a wrench into the works. The counties that would make up the new state would also have to agree, and some of them might well balk. Expecting prosperous San Diego and Orange counties to act as the sole tax base supporting programs in the less-affluent desert and agricultural regions might not really fly with locals along the South Coast. Stone has already declared that South California would keep a law based on Proposition 13, ensuring that the new state would inherit many of the problems it seeks to avoid.

Even if all agreed a new state was a good idea, there would be a lot of details to work out. Most of Los Angeles' water comes from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. The Owens Valley would be part of South California under Stone's scenario, while the Colorado would no longer touch the state of California anywhere along its length. Los Angeles would be utterly dependent for its water on the goodwill of South California, while farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties would be getting much of their water from across the state line in the opposite direction.

For that matter, splitting the state of California would likely take herculean effort just to clarify each California's role in the Colorado River Compact, the 1922 pact that allocates the river's water among the seven states in its basin. Would the leftovers of California even have a claim on that water if none of the state was within the Colorado River's basin? You can be sure that would be decided, at great length and great expense, in a courtroom.

Other problems would include the division of the California State and University of California systems: three UC campuses and six Cal State schools would find themselves in the new state.

Perhaps most dauntingly, the majority of the counties in the new state currently receive more in income from state government spending than they send to Sacramento in taxes. At least that's what Giovernor Brown's spokesman Gil Duran said to the New York Times in responding to Stone's proposal. Stone himself admits that he came up with the idea when the news came down the wire that Sacramento was cutting its aid to several newly incorporated cities in Riverside County.

Few would argue with the notion that California is in crisis, perhaps inherently ungovernable. Proposals to split the state have been advanced since the state first existed. It may well be that California's too big, and too diverse, to function as an integrated whole.

But it seems far more sensible to look at known, specific issues driving California into the ground -- the deeply flawed initiative process and the state's consequent unsustainable tax policy based on Prop 13 foremost among them -- before talking about splitting the state along partisan lines. Given that Stone's party has historically been deeply invested in defending those flaws in our state government, it seems unlikely that his statewide meeting will fix much.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday at 10 a.m. He lives in Palm Springs.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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