Split-state idea needs a fair hearing

Tim Holt is a freelance journalist, former editor and publisher of the Suttertown News, and the founder of the farmers market in Dunsmuir.
Tim Holt is a freelance journalist, former editor and publisher of the Suttertown News, and the founder of the farmers market in Dunsmuir.

I’m glad there’s one initiative we won’t see on Tuesday’s ballot – the one that proposed to split California into six states. It was the brainchild of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper and, according to state and county election officials, didn’t have enough valid signatures to qualify for this or any other ballot. Frankly, I hope Draper will simply drop the idea.

Draper’s initiative, to use an old but apt cliché, puts the cart before the horse. What deserves to be on a future ballot is the question of whether California voters think splitting the state is a good idea, not whether they like Draper’s six-state map, which included a separate state named Silicon Valley. My ideal initiative would simply ask voters if they like the idea of splitting California into two or more states.

If the voters said “yes” on this up-or-down vote, then I’d have a blue-ribbon commission, whose members could be identified in the initiative, draw up a map, which could then be ratified or rejected on a subsequent statewide ballot.

We are not talking about revolutionary or earth-shattering change here. Some of my lefty-enviro friends in the Bay Area seem to think that the redneck libertarians up here in my northernmost part of the state would cut down all the trees and kill all the wildlife if they had their own state, forgetting that we’d still come under the purview of the federal government and all its environmental regulations.

Splitting up a state with 38 million people, one in which each state senator currently represents about 1 million constituents, is as much about empowering the average citizen as it is about recognizing regional differences. A simple up-or-down vote on splitting up California would, I hope, engender a healthy debate on whether smaller government really does give greater voice to the average citizen. To get some insight into that, watch and see which side the lobbyists line up on, although I think that’s pretty easy to predict – two or more states would mean more elected officials to cozy up to, more laws and regulations to cope with and more campaign contributions.

However, even if you diluted the influence of special-interest lobbyists, it doesn’t mean you’d automatically empower the average citizen. Citizens have to take some initiative to have an impact on government, after all, and there will always be apathetic citizens. I think a new state of Southern California or the Bay Area or Far Northern California will energize folks who are already inclined to be politically involved, who would then be able to take a short drive, or BART, to their state capital. Splitting the state would enhance activism rather than create it.

Yes, it will be a tough sell to the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress, both of which are required by the U.S. Constitution to approve any plan for splitting the state.

To get some of the history of the split-the-state effort, I checked in with Stan Statham, a former state legislator from Redding who for more than two decades has been pushing the idea. In 1992, as a state assemblyman, Statham pushed through an advisory vote on the issue that won the approval of voters in 27 of the 31 counties that put the measure on their ballots – the furthest the idea has been taken thus far.

Shortly after that, with Willie Brown’s support, Statham got the Assembly to approve putting a state-splitting initiative on the November 1994 statewide ballot, but the measure languished in the Senate, where it died in committee.

When we had lunch recently in Sacramento, he pointed out that four states – Maine, West Virginia, Kentucky and Vermont – have already been carved out of existing ones, so there’s more than ample precedent for the California initiative. Statham is currently at work on a book, “Reclaim California,” which details the history of split-the-state proposals going all the way back to 1859. Still youthful-looking and vigorous at 75, he’s determined to keep pushing the idea.

We see movements all around us for encouraging regional food production, buying locally made products, buying from locally owned businesses and for spurring stronger and more innovative local government.

This trend toward the local and the regional is a healthy one, I think; energy and innovation do not grow out of unwieldy mega-states like California. As we’ve often done in the past, Californians should be willing to get out in front of this movement. For starters, we need to have a discussion and a vote on the clearly defined issue of whether we should split up California.

Tim Holt is a writer and journalist who lives in Dunsmuir. He is the founder and editor of the quarterly North State Review.