“Marriage is hard,” proclaimed New America Foundation Irvine Senior Fellow Joe Mathews. Schwarzenegger and Shriver couldn’t make it; Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries survived just 72 days. But California has stayed together for 161 uneasy years. That’s despite what one historian counted as over 200 proposals to split the state in one way or another. To kick off a Connecting California panel at the Fresno Art Museum, an event co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and The Bill Lane Center for the American West, Mathews asked a group of panelists with extensive experience in local, regional, and state government a simple question: why does the state’s divorce keep coming up?
California Broadcasters Association President Stan Statham, a former state assemblyman, told the story of his bid in the early 1990s to split California into three states divided at the Golden Gate Bridge and the Tehachapi Mountains. He knew he would probably fail, but he was tired of the dysfunction and lack of true representation he saw in the state’s government. Then-Speaker of the House Willie Brown (who had once proposed a similar bill of his own) offered his support, but the bill was quashed in the senate. Still, Statham doesn’t think the idea will die. “Stand by for another bill on the issue,” he said.
Panelist Bill Maze, also a former state assemblyman, was part of a proposal in the past two years to split the state into two. Under his plan the central part of California would still be California, while the coastal counties from Los Angeles to Marin would split off into a new state. “There are literally hundreds of issues that go into this type of discussion,” including the question of legality, Maze allowed. But a split is legal in California, provided that a majority of the state’s voters approves.
The newest plan for division comes from Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, who has proposed that 13 counties in Southern California be split off into their own state. Panelist Darcy Kuenzi, who founded the Riverside County city of Menifee in 2008 and now sits on its council, explained that Stone’s idea came about “because of the dysfunction and lack of consideration given to our region from the state.” Four new cities were incorporated in the county between 2008 and 2010, and, as part of their inaugural budgets, they were to receive extra state funding to get started. But “that money was taken away in the middle of the night,” Kuenzi said. “I don’t think people are heard in Sacramento.”
Former deputy state treasurer Mark Paul countered Statham, Maze, and Kuenzi’s proposals. “Legally, [a split] can happen,” he said. But it’s unrealistic for two reasons: the U.S. Congress won’t give its approval, and it’s not economically feasible. “California’s economic engine is on the coast,” he said. “It’s where our great industries are, and state government reflects that reality.”
The three functions of state government are to “educate, medicate, and incarcerate,” Paul explained. The tax revenues come from the coast, while inland California has a disproportionate share of people needing services like schools, health care, and–yes–imprisonment. A split isn’t necessary, said Paul, but reform is: what California really needs is to decentralize and give more power to regional governments.
Peter Weber, executive chairman of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, agreed with Paul, but he sympathized with the idea of a “divorce” for California. All married couples probably contemplate divorce from time to time, Weber said, but it’s not always the best answer. “I’m interested in solutions that are going to happen in my lifetime,” he said. “How do we allocate water? How do we allocate debt?” Splitting these things up would just be too complicated, and the poorer counties don’t have enough resources to make it work. “Believe me: when we split up, there won’t be any alimony.” Instead, with the nonprofit California Forward, Weber is proposing a ballot initiative that fixes state-level issues, addresses budget reform, and gives more power to local governments.
Statham disagreed with Paul and Weber’s belief that economic imbalances make dividing the state impossible, pointing to the success of Vermont splitting off from New York. All the U.S. states with budget problems have major cities, he said. Maine has the same number of senators as California, and “that’s a felony in my opinion.”
Kuenzi pointed to the success of the city of Menifee. “We decided we were going to be our own government, and we formed our own boundaries,” she said. “I don’t think that you can count out secession or dividing the state.”
Maze agreed that reform of some kind is needed. Statham and I have “seen how the sausage is made” in the state legislature, he said. “It’s just disastrous.”
If divorce isn’t a viable or immediate solution, though, many of the panelists had other ideas about how to improve the state’s government. Paul suggested dividing assembly seats proportionally between parties, giving legislators political incentives to address real issues, while Maze supported more manageable districts. Weber felt that the “tapestry” of regional California economies needed to be better accounted for in the state’s governing. And Kuenzi concluded by agreeing that “we need some change, and we need it today.”
Statham offered the most forceful conclusion of all. “If a marriage is dysfunctional, as many are,” Statham said, “get a divorce!”
*Photos by Sarah Rivera