California’s an amazing place, a state with a history of starting trends that sweep across the nation. It has crowded cities and spectacular wilderness, agriculture and high-tech industries, 840 miles of coast, 163,000 square miles of land and 36 million people.
And it’s proving almost impossible to manage.
The governor and the Legislature can’t solve a catastrophic budget deficit. More than two-thirds of the state’s residents have lost faith in both branches of government. As the political problems get worse and worse, the most influential lawmaking that goes on tends to come from inflexible, often flawed ballot initiatives run and funded by wealthy interests. A May 14, 2009 story in The Economist summed it up with the headline, “California: the ungovernable state.”
The collapse of this year’s budget deal at the ballot on May 19 is just the latest example of the state’s structural failure. And across the spectrum, from the left to the right, from the farmers in the Central Valley to the liberals on the coast, Californians are starting to realize that something major, something dramatic and profound, has to be done.
Over the past few months, a wide range of proposals have cropped up, including a call for a new Constitutional convention and a radical restructuring of the state Legislature. And the prospect of 60 million people eventually living in this dysfunctional political nightmare has led even relatively moderate thinkers to consider the most intriguing, and problematic, option of all: should we break up the state of California?
Same-sex marriage advocates were dragged on an emotional roller-coaster ride in mid-May when a false report surfaced declaring that the Supreme Court had overturned Proposition 8. A flurry of excitement whirled through cyberspace — only to come crashing down when it was revealed to be a gaffe originating with some Twitter user who’d read an out-of-date news report. In fact, on May 26, the Supreme Court upheld Prop. 8.
To many, the tease served as a sour reminder that the ballot measure that struck down same-sex marriage and sent emotional shockwaves throughout the Bay Area, had prevailed in the November 2008 statewide election — despite an overwhelming defeat in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, some 250 miles from the Bay Area, emotions are still running high over the passage of a different ballot measure, which some Central Valley farmers have come to regard as not merely a sore subject but as the last straw. Organizing under the banner Citizens for Saving California Farming Industries, they’ve summed up Proposition 2 — which requires farm animals to be penned in larger spaces — as “allowing the mass numbers of farm-uneducated city dwellers to dictate farm policy.” The group fears that the ramifications will be an out-migration of farmers at a time when agriculture is already facing severe economic woes. Before Prop. 2 becomes effective in 2015, they hope to place a measure on the ballot to cleave California in two — so that, as dairy farmer and Citizens for Saving California Farming Industries board member Paul Olson puts it, “We can do our thing, and you guys can do yours.”
And while the move comes from the conservative side of the state, that’s a sentiment a lot of liberals could live with.
Conservative Central Valley farmers and LGBT communities in San Francisco may as well inhabit different planets, yet they mutually contribute to one another’s frustration with state law. Governing California means acting in the interests of more than 36 million individuals, a population surpassing that of Texas — the nation’s second-largest state — by more than 12 million. By 2050, the state’s population is projected to balloon to 60 million, according to the California Department of Finance.
Disparate viewpoints are just one reason for the wedge perpetually driven into California’s gears. Polarized politics make it exceedingly difficult for the state Legislature to find common ground, resulting in gridlock.
Some of the reasons for that are quirks in the state Constitution and bad political decisions by the Legislature. California is the only state in America that requires a super-majority — two-thirds of both the Assembly and the Senate — both to pass a budget and to raise taxes. And in the past two decades, Democratic leaders in Sacramento have gone out of their way to draw Legislative lines that protect and maximize Democratic representation. That helps the majority party, but it’s had a polarizing impact: the GOP districts tend to be much more conservative, and the lawmakers they send to the state Capitol have, at this point, all signed a pledge never to raise taxes.
“They believe if they compromise with the Democrats, it will be the end of their political careers,” said state Sen. Mark Leno. “And in most cases, they’re probably right.”
But in a larger sense, the problem is inherent in the fractured makeup of this gigantic state. The truth is, Californians no longer share a vision for what the state is and ought to be. The Republicans have become a radical right minority that has the ability to paralyze state government, and the Democrats can’t muster the statewide support to take control.
“The institutions that are premeditated on cooperation fall apart when you don’t have a middle,” noted U.C. Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, an expert on California politics. “We’re at a point where people want to change the institutions.”
With California’s financial house torn asunder, 5,000 state-employee job losses in the works, tensions mounting over water shortages, and deep cuts to education and other critical services, it’s no wonder Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself recently questioned whether the state is actually governable. In fact, the single point that seems to resonate across California’s entire spectrum is that its government needs a major overhaul.
Historical context puts the current problems in a bit of perspective. As a recent report by the New America Foundation notes, the population of California today is roughly equal to the population of the entire United States at the end of the Civil War. “The Americans of 1870 lived in a nation of 37 states, each with its own independently-elected officials responsible for and accountable to their own geographically distinct political units” the report states. “The Californians of 2008 live in a ‘nation’ without states — a nation comprising more than a half dozen regions, each with its own economy, ecology, and political culture.”
The foundation titled its report “Personalized full representation for California’s regions.” It recommends dividing the state into eight ministates and expanding the Legislature to a 360-seat unicameral body and electing members both directly and through proportional representation based on party.
“This would fundamentally change the formula of politics in California,” said Steve Hill, director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation. It would, for example, encourage regional thinking — there would be a delegation elected from the Bay Area, one from the Central Coast, one from the Gold Country, etc. In effect, California would be treated as what it nearly is — a country — with broad issues addressed by representatives from what amount to states.
It makes a lot of sense. The current governing model was devised for a much smaller, less diverse, and less complicated state. And it worked remarkably well for a fairly long time. The rule that required a two-thirds majority to pass a state budget wasn’t much of a problem before 1978.
“That year was a turning point,” Cain notes. “That was the year the cave men got elected and the antitax people became much more aggressive about using the initiative.” It was, of course, the year that the infamous Proposition 13 forever changed how the state was financed. Prior to Prop. 13, much of what local government did, including education, was funded through property taxes. Once that initiative rolled back property levies and essentially barred any future increases, cities and counties saw their fiscal base begin to collapse. The state — which was flush with cash in the late 1970s — stepped in and agreed to bail out local government and public schools.
That’s one reason the size of the state budget has grown so dramatically in the past 30 years — with local property tax revenue all but frozen, Sacramento has had to take on the burden.
It was also the beginning of a political polarization that has only gotten worse as the needs of poorer and urban Californians have run up against the refusal of conservatives in the Central Valley and far south to even consider new sources of state revenue.
Solutions for resuscitating California’s system are as diverse as the state’s demographics. Ask progressives, and they’ll say the extreme right-wing drags the rest of the state backward and that we have to get rid of the two-thirds majority and elect a Democratic governor. Ask conservatives, and they’ll blame it on liberals ramming their ideals down everyone else’s throat.
Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the Courage Campaign, an organization that was instrumental in building opposition against Prop. 8, says the two-thirds majority requirement to pass the state budget is a critical problem. “This lunacy of acquiring a two-thirds vote — it truly is lunacy,” Jacobs says. “It is the biggest reason that our state is … headed toward financial ruin. It’s because the far right-wing of the Republican Party holds the budget hostage every chance they get. And it distorts the way the state works and creates the problems we’re seeing.”
But Olson, a dairy farmer from Tulare who’s working alongside Republican former Assembly Member Bill Maze on an effort to “downsize California” by trimming the 13 coastal counties spanning Marin to Los Angeles, stands with Maze in saying that ditching the two-thirds majority rule would worsen California’s predicament. “Any attempts to make it easier to pass the budget, I think, would be devastating,” he says. “This state has a tremendous spending problem.”
And in fact, it’s not going to be easy to repeal the two-thirds majority rule. In 2004, a measure to make that change was walloped, losing by a 2-1 margin. A poll in January showed that 55 percent of the voters would support lowering the threshold for passing a budget — but not for raising taxes. Nobody likes gridlock, but a lot of Californians seem unwilling to trust the Democrats to run things by themselves.
So what if the Central Valley farmers got their way and kicked the coastal areas out of California? The easterners would reside in a state where 31 of 45 counties would be dominated by Republican voters. San Franciscans would reside in a state where 12 out of 13 counties had Democratic majorities. The coastal state would almost certainly have a Democratic governor and an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. There would be none of the current budget gridlock. The farmers might be a bit disappointed in their efforts at eliminating agricultural regulation: Prop. 2 would still have won in the inland counties, though by a much smaller margin.
The call to split up California isn’t new. There have been some 200 serious attempts to break apart the massive state. Discontentment in southern California in 1850 gave way to a call to separate from territory to the north. The early 1980s saw a push to cut the state evenly in half. In 1993, Shasta County Assembly Member Stan Statham made a pitch to break the state into three.
Gail Fiorini-Jenner, a Siskiyou County high school teacher and writer who is married to a cattle rancher, has coauthored two books about the State of Jefferson, the subject of a secession movement dating back to 1850. The would-be state encompasses northernmost California counties and southernmost Oregon counties, and the push to break away hit a fever pitch in 1941 when secessionists blocked traffic in Yreka with calls to secede. The onset of World War II put it to rest, according to Fiorini-Jenner, and while new efforts have resurfaced since, she doesn’t believe the rest of California would ever agree to let go of such a resource-rich area. That hasn’t deterred people from posting road signs welcoming motorists to Jefferson, or establishing Jefferson Public Radio. And, like the Central Valley farmers, the sentiment that would-be Jefferson residents are unlike other Californians still prevails.
“We just see ourselves as being different,” Fiorini-Jenner says.
Frank Gruber, a Santa Monica attorney who sits on the board of the California Studies Association, has written on and presented his idea of splitting California into four states. “I don’t have any illusions that it might actually happen,” Gruber laughs.
His four-state solution would consist of a 15-county coastal state spanning Mendocino to Ventura counties; a 35-county inland state spanning from the northern state border to Kern County; a seven-county Southern California state, and the freestanding State of L.A. “On the national level, California is an anemic giant,” Gruber told the U.C. Berkeley Faculty Club during a talk on the subject. “Our two senators represent 37 million people — about the same number as the 44 senators of the 22 smallest states.
“What we need,” Gruber told Berkeley faculty members, “is a no-fault, amicable divorce, because all Californians need state government that is closer to the people, and state government needs constituents who have more similar needs, who have a more common purpose.”
Is it really crazy to say that California isn’t really a state any more, or that most people who live here might actually be happier if they were governed by people who more directly shared their political views?
“I think the temptation to think this way is a result of all the social sorting that’s going on,” Cain noted. Liberals tend to want to live on the coast; conservatives flock to conservative areas.
Imagine, for example, a three-state solution. The northern counties could form their state of Jefferson, where pot would be legal and gun control would be limited. The coastal communities from, say, Sonoma down to Los Angeles would have a state with a rational tax policy, good public schools, healthy social services, same-sex marriage, and liberal social policies. The Central Valley, the Inland Empire, and San Diego could have their GOP heaven of low taxes and limited services — until they saw what it was doing to their lives.
“The danger, of course, is that you’d be creating a Mississippi in the Central Valley,” Cain said.
In addition, Leno added, “There would be a huge influx of people who desperately need services who would leave the valley and head for the coast.”
On the other hand, each of the states would have a healthy economic base (agriculture in the valley, information technology on the coast, and pot in the north). Each would be larger than many current U.S. states.
At the very least, it’s worth talking about.
Another stab at fundamental reform — this one keeping California intact as a state — is beginning to look like it will move forward. It’s fascinating (and a bit scary).
The Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based group of business CEOs, says it’s working in everyone’s interest by rallying support for a statewide convention that would open up California’s constitution for debate. The council organized a summit this past February to stimulate dialogue around the idea (see “Blaming the System,” 3/4/09). Since then, Schwarzenegger has publicly voiced support for a constitutional convention.
“The state government is no longer our partner in getting anything done,” says BAC spokesperson John Grubb. “It’s such a place where ideas die that it’s created this incredible stasis. Any solution is better than just letting things sit as they are.” Another problem, in Grubb’s view, is extraordinarily low approval ratings — about 14 percent — for the state legislature. “When you get to that point where the leadership has that little trust, does democracy even function? We would argue that, no, it is no longer functioning in our state. So we need a new system.”
It’s not just business doing the talking. Jacobs, the liberal Courage Campaign founder, echoes this idea. “We have to press ‘reset,'<0x2009>” he says. The Courage Campaign is one of many groups partnering with BAC to move forward the effort to hold a California Constitutional Convention.
Of course, opening the Constitution can be a frightening prospect — once you go in that direction, all sorts of special-interest nut cases might try to insert their causes. But everyone involved agrees that social issues (like abortion and civil rights) should stay out of the discussion. The priorities, Jacobs said, should be “No. 1 — the way the government works. No. 2, the initiative process. Three, term limits.” For progressives, he says, the goal will be “engaging the progressive movement that has taken hold in this country so we can have our state back.”
Hill says the New America Foundation’s idea of regional delegations and proportional representation is going to be part of the discussion: “If that’s not on the table,” he said, “then I’m not even interested.”
The Council expects to fork over around $25 million for each of two November 2010 ballot measures that would ask voters two things: whether they should be empowered to call a convention, and if such a convention should be called. There’s also the uphill climb of gathering 1.6 million signatures, an expense that works out to around $2 a pop, Grubb says.
But the council feels it’s worth the investment. “Every day of budget delay costs $40 million,” Grubb points out. “So two days of budget delay pay for what we’re trying to do here. These things are relative.”
Mark Paul, senior scholar and deputy director of the California program at the progressive New America Foundation, voiced support for the idea. “The voter anger and apathy that marked the [May 19] special election are signs of the governing paralysis California has inflicted upon itself through decades of piecemeal, incremental reform,” he said. “The people want government to work but have made normal functioning impossible. Only by rethinking our constitution can California hope to get out of this self-imposed bind.”
Not everyone is thrilled with that concept, though. “I can see a constitutional convention becoming a free-for-all, with every interest group trying to capture the process,” Cain said.
He’s also not so excited about the mandate for major reform. “We get into an economic crisis, and everyone starts to talk about change,” he said. “Then by the time we get around to looking at our serious problems, the economy recovers and we all forget about it.” ———— P>ARE TWO (OR THREE) CALIFORNIAS BETTER THAN ONE?
In the 2008 election, California voters elected President Barack Obama with 61 percent of the vote, leaving McCain in the dust with just 37 percent. They also voted in favor of Proposition 8, banning gay marriage on a vote that was split 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent.
Here’s how it would have played out if California were split into two or three different states. (P.S. — only 59 percent of eligible voters actually voted.)
DOUBLE TROUBLE: DOS CALIFORNIAS
(Based on Proposal by Citizens for Saving California Farming Industries*)
(Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Marin, Monterey, San Benito, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Ventura counties)
Population: about 15.7 million
Democratic-majority counties: 12
Republican-majority counties: 1
Votes for president: Obama 67.9%, McCain 27.5 %
Votes on Prop. 8: no 51.7%, yes 45%
(Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Del Norte, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Mendocino, Merced, Modoc, Mono, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, Plumas, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernadino, San Diego, San Joaquin, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Tulare, Tuolumne, Yolo, Yuba counties)
Population: about 21 million
Democratic-majority counties: 14
Republican-majority counties: 31
Votes for president: Obama 52.4%, McCain 45.4%
Votes on Prop. 8: no 39%, yes 55%.
Does not take into account Proposal to split up two counties.
AND THE DEVIL MAKES THREE (CALIFORNIAS)
(Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte, Siskiyou, Shasta, Lassen, and Modoc counties)
Population: just over 500,000
Republican-majority counties: 6
Democratic-majority counties: 2
Votes for president in 2008: Obama 49.2%, McCain 46.5%
Votes on Prop. 8: yes 53%, no 40%
(Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Marin, Monterey, San Benito, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Ventura counties)
Population: about 16 million
Republican-majority counties: 1
Democratic-majority counties: 13
Votes for president: Obama 68%, McCain 27.4%
Votes on Prop. 8: yes 42.6 %, no 52.2%
(Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lake, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Mono, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, Plumas, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernadino, San Diego, San Joaquin, Sierra, Solano, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Tulare, Tuolumne, Yolo, Yuba)
Population: about 20 million
Republican-majority counties: 24
Democratic-majority counties: 12
Votes for president: Obama 52.5%, McCain 45.4%
Votes on Prop. 8: no 38.9%, yes 55.7%
Sources: California Secretary of State voting records; U.S. Census Bureau 2008 population data