Alec Weisman's

South California: A Straight to TV Movie

In Domestic Policy on July 6, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Alec Weisman

One of the perpetual jokes of people in Southern California is that we should split California into SoCal and NorCal. “Those NorCal people fail,” we joke. “They say hella and brag about how they are from the ‘yay area’ aka San Fransicko or Bezerkely. Plus they lack our weather.” “SoCal equals #winning. We bankroll California, and all we get from NorCal is water and taxes.” Some of us joke that California is really four states: Southern Oregon (everything north of Sonoma County), NorCal (from Sonoma, Napa, and Sacramento Counties south to Monterrey, Kings, Tulare, and Inyo Counties), SoCal (San Luis Obispo, Kern and San Bernadino Counties south to Orange and Riverside Counties), and LoCal (San Diego and Imperial Counties). But how feasible are plans to divide up the world’s 5th largest economy in reality? In addition, why are plans being mentioned now? A discussion of the legality and historical background of in-state secession movements is necessary to accompany this discussion.

Riverside County Supervisor, Jeff Stone, last week proposed for 13 counties to secede from the state and become a new state, South California. These 13 counties he calls for to join this new state are Riverside, Imperial, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Kings, Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa and Mono. In addition, in Mr. Stone’s version of South California, the state would lack term limits, is composed of a part-time legislature and contains provisions similar to those of Proposition 13.

Critics of his policy focus on how he noticeably leaves out Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties, in what seems to be a rather fancy version of gerrymandering. His supporters cite that the disproportionate voting power of Los Angeles County (as well as several large cities in Northern California) is a major cause to the problems of the state of California. Mr. Stone plans to bring his proposal before the Riverside County Board of Supervisors on July 12.

A fair debate on the merits and flaws of the current proposal should take place. In addition, would any proposal to divide California be successful, and more critically, would any proposal be legal?

On the positive side, Jeff Stone’s new state would consist of generally low tax counties that lean more conservative. It would also promote a citizen part-time legislature (but would not have term limits) that would keep property taxes low and push for fiscal responsibility.  Jeff Stone seeks to make “South California” comparable to Texas, which has been luring California jobs away from the state due to it’s lower, more comprehensible tax rate and regulations. Mr. Stone explained the jobs that have left California are “Not coming back unless we get a change of leadership or we get a change of government by forming a new state and having a part-time legislature.”

Yet, after greater analysis this new state seems both infeasible and foolish. It serves as an example of extreme gerrymandering, and does not guarantee fiscal success for the new state. As this plan lacks Los Angeles and the other beach cities north to San Luis Obispo, Jeff Stone ignores the economic impact of these cities on the rest of the region (Riverside, San Bernadino, and Orange Counties are all a part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area). Any logical plan to divide California that ignores Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties is just foolish. In addition, his plan ignores how and why California’s relatively recent demographic and political shift came to happen. California’s shift 30 years ago from an electoral swing state to a solidly democratic state has been due to several factors, including a loss of manufacturing jobs following the end of the Cold War, a serial spending problem by the California legislature, terrible PR skills of the California Republican Party and bad decisions by conservative politicians/Republican party leaders. Some people have even argued to make the division on an East/West line rather than North/South, because many of the beach cities have large populations that lean liberal in contrast to inland cities.

This discussion is superficial and appears to be a political move to raise attention to the California legislature’s failure to represent their constituents. According to the United States Constitution: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” What is the implication of this statement? Unless the state legislature of California decided to vote to allow a split of California (something extremely unlikely to happen), any county to try and form a new state would be unconstitutional and illegitimate. This is assuming that the California state legislature would oppose the movement. It is extremely rare for politicians to voluntarily give up power, and the California legislature is likely to be no different.

Supporters of the secessionist movement will cry “What about West Virginia? Or, what about the creation of North and South Carolina/Dakota? What about Kansas and Nebraska? Or what about the formation of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota from land owned by other states?”

First, North and South Carolina both developed separately and were split into two colonies in 1712, prior to the American Constitution. So too was the Northwest Ordinance, which was an agreement under the Articles of Confederation government to create territories out of land previously owned by other states. These trans-Appalachian lands were ceded to the federal government in the 1780s, and later became other states. However these cessions occurred with the agreement of the state legislatures and helped convince states lacking land claims to ratify and adopt the new Constitution on September 17, 1787. Next, Kansas and Nebraska were split into the Kansas and Nebraska territories after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which led to massive battles over slavery within the two territories. Then in regards to North and South Dakota, these states were split after being within of the Dakota Territory along with Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho on November 2, 1889. Finally, only West Virginia can claim actual origin to secession. After Virginia decided to join the confederacy, the western counties of the state decided to un-secede. Through quasi-legal maneuvering, the support of the legislature of the “Restored government of Virginia” and approval by Congress and President Lincoln, West Virginia became the 35th state, despite objections regarding the constitutionality of such an action. All other states were formed from either a colony or a territory or through the agreement of the full state legislature (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine), and no other challenges to state sovereignty have been successful.

Could California change this trend? It is very unlikely, and “California secession movements” have a historical precedent of failure. Starting in 1859, an attempt was made to divide California into a northern and southern component, but Congress was preoccupied with the Civil War and never supported it. Later, In 1940-1941, several counties in Northern California and Oregon sought to form the state of Jefferson, in order to draw attention to the poor roads in that region of both states. However the plan went down in flames following the United States entrance into World War II. In the 1960’s attempts were again made to divide California in half, however these failed as well.

What are some of the lessons from failed secession movements? Without large amounts of public support for well-timed, well-branded efforts, secession is extremely improbable to be successful. Following US tradition reveals that the addition of new states tends to rely upon having a partner to counterbalance any political advantage that the admission of the new state may have had in Congress.

In conclusion, the major benefit from this secession effort of Supervisor Stone will be to air grievances against the California legislature and executive branch. If this proposal prompts discussion and debate about overspending and skewed priorities of the dysfunctional California government, Californians will be the ones to benefit. If not, then this will be just another footnote in history of a California official looking for his 15 minutes of fame.

As President Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand… I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided,” so too can be said of California. I do not believe that California will divide, but the people of California need to awaken to the failure of the policies of their legislature before they can work to end them. Until that happens California will continue to tread a dangerous path of fiscal irresponsibility with a government filled with politicians shirking their duty to the people.

  1. What a great piece, demonstrating both exceptional historical knowledge and careful research!

    I would say that I agree with you on most of the points you make — secession for any state or county is both unlawful and impractical. The decision to break up a state can only come from federal level authority. While Californians in NoCal, SoCal, and central valley may in fact desire a permanent divorce, national level politics will prevent it from happening.

    For instance, how many Democratic politicians are going to be accepting of two more guaranteed Republican senators and many more electoral college voters coming from Stone’s Southern California state? I would say virtually none, and certainly not enough to create a passable super-majority.

    Believe me, I love every single one of Stone’s ideas on governance and would back them all in a heartbeat. I would also love for California to be reasonably broken up. But I just know that there is no way these things are going to happen, and any attempt to do so may cause more harm than good, especially at the national level (after all, I love my country more than my state).

    I’m just going to quote my entirely coincidental avatar and say, “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

    PS- Another broken off state was Vermont, which was taken from New York as part of the deal to ratify the Constitution I believe.

  2. Does the proposed State even have an economy worth taxing? Most of California’s economy is tied up in NorCal or in LA. Wouldn’t the proposed State’s economy be almost entirely agricultural? It would end up being like Connecticut – just a place for New Yorkers to live, but they transit into NorCal.

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