Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Six-state measure would have given regional governments a boost

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The notion of recasting California’s 58 counties and thousands of special districts that deal with water, fire protection, parks, hospitals, mosquito abatement and many other services into multipurpose regional governments has kicked around for at least a half-century.

During his reign as Assembly speaker in the 1960s, Jesse Unruh pushed the concept and Unruh protégé Willie Brown also gave it a try during his speakership two decades later, to no avail.

Both collided with the immense inertia of California’s convoluted governmental structure. Every county, every special district – and every city for that matter – has a governing board and an administrative apparatus that would resist any change in their status.

But it remains standard fare for academic and foundation conclaves aimed at making California governance more relevant and efficient. And contained within the seemingly odd proposal to break California into six new states, the brainchild of Silicon Valley tycoon Tim Draper, is one potential pathway.

Draper spent millions of dollars to collect signatures on petitions to put his Six Californias measure on the ballot, only to fall short in the validation sampling process.

The measure’s fate is now very uncertain. Draper has hinted he may go to court to force a full count of the signatures, or possibly start over with a new proposal for 2016.

The breakup of California got all of the attention as the signatures were being gathered and counted, with the consensus among pundits, including this one, that even if voters passed Draper’s measure there was virtually no chance that Congress would agree to the split.

Had it qualified and passed, however, one section of the measure would have gone into effect regardless of what Congress did – empowering counties to pass new charters and join other counties within one of the designated six states to form regional governments.

It would also have put more teeth into local officials’ perennial demand that the state pay them for any mandate Sacramento imposes on them – even allowing the counties or their regional governments to ignore any uncompensated mandate.

This section of the measure was ostensibly a transition to having six new states, but in the absence of congressional action, the section would remain a part of the constitution. And it would represent, at least in theory, a shift of governmental power from Sacramento back to counties, or regions, thus reversing a four-decade trend of growing state power, thanks to the Capitol’s control of finances, and diminishing local authority.

Draper’s regional governance provision is why, one suspects, his measure drew such vehement opposition from unions and other liberal groups, which have benefited from an ever-more-powerful state government dominated by friendly Democrats.