So long, California: Major counties vote to study secession


RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — In the November election, Californians continued to embrace progressive leadership, but voters in one of the state’s most populous counties are so frustrated with this political direction that they voted to consider seceding and forming their own state.

An advisory ballot proposal passed in San Bernardino County, home to 2.2 million people, directs local officials to look into the possibility of secession. The narrow margin of victory is the latest sign of political instability and economic distress in California.

This attempt to create a new state, which would be the first since Hawaii in 1959, is a remote proposition for a county east of Los Angeles that has seen sharp increases in the cost of living. It would depend on approval by the California Legislature and Congress, both of which are highly unlikely.

Still, it is significant that the vote came from a racially and ethnically diverse county that is politically mixed, as well as the fifth most populous in the state and the largest in the nation by area. San Bernardino’s 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers) is made up of more territory than nine states.

The votes speak to the alienation felt by some voters from a long-Democratic dominated state house that has made little headway on the growing homelessness crisis, rising housing costs and rising rates of crime, while residents pay one of the highest taxes in the country.

There is “a lot of frustration in general” with state government and how public dollars are being spent, with very little getting to the county, said Curt Hagman, chairman of the Board of Supervisors that placed the proposal on the ballot. The county will look at whether billions of dollars in state and federal funds were shared fairly with local governments in the Inland Empire.

From record inflation to friction over state long-running pandemic policies, “it’s been a tough few years” for residents, Hagman said.

Kristin Washington, chairwoman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party, dismissed the move as a political maneuver to attract conservative voters, rather than a barometer of public sentiment.

“Putting it on a ballot was a waste of time for the voters,” he said. “The option of actually seceding from the state is not even a realistic thing because of all the steps that it actually involves.” In San Bernardino County, Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans by 12 points. Still, in November, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom lost the county by 5 points. He easily defeated a recall last year spurred by opposition to pandemic health orders that closed schools and businesses. California was one of the first states to close schools and turn to online learning, and also among the last to return students to face-to-face learning.

Democrats dominate the California Legislature and the congressional delegation, and the state is known as an incubator for liberal policies on the climate, health care, labor issues and immigration, and the vote could be seen in part as a reaction to state priorities. Once solidly Republican ground, with recent population growth, San Bernardino County has become more diverse and Democratic, similar to changes in neighboring San Diego and Orange counties.

Throughout its 172-year history, California has withstood more than 220 failed attempts to dismantle the state into as many as six smaller states, according to the California State Library. Previous separatist efforts sought to carve out a new “Jefferson State” from nearly two dozen Northern California counties, though they were largely rural, conservative-leaning, and sparsely populated.

Competition between mining and agricultural interests, as well as opposition to taxes, have fueled some of these secession efforts. There have been proposals to divide the sprawling state into northern and southern sections, as well as split it longitudinally to create separate coastal and inland regions.

“Everyone outside of this county thinks we are the Wild West,” said Mayor Paul Leon, who backed the measure. Despite the county’s size, he said it “receives a pittance” when it comes to state and federal aid for roads, courts and transit.

The city of San Bernardino, with a population of approximately 220,000, is the third largest metropolitan area in the state, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. Beyond the urban centers, its communities range from sleepy suburbs crisscrossed by freeways, mountain towns framed by towering pine trees, and isolated desert retreats like hippie Joshua Tree. Inflation and economic stress are challenging many communities. Before the pandemic, the county’s unemployment rate was already 9.5% in 2019, with 12.2% of households living below the poverty line.

“I tend to be very skeptical of these secession moves,” said William Deverell, director of the Huntington Institute-USC in California and the West.

“The state’s issues are not likely to be addressed by the jurisdictional chopping block,” Deverell said in an email. He is wary of the “arrogance” of: “If only this part of the state could go its own way, since we are not the root of the problem.”

Since the proposal was approved, the county’s next step is to form a committee, likely comprised of members from the public and private sectors, that will conduct a funding analysis that will compare San Bernardino to other counties.

Many Inland Empire communities are struggling financially even though California’s economy, by itself, may soon become the world’s fourth largest economy, rather than fifth. The state announced last month that it had restored all of the 2.7 million jobs it lost at the start of the pandemic. However, there are projections of a $25 billion budget deficit next year and signs of a shaky economy, as even the historically powerful tech industry has seen layoffs.

From 2018 to 2021, 352 companies moved their headquarters from California to other California states, according to a study by the Hoover Institution. After decades of growth, the state’s population of 39 million has been shrinking, in part because residents are leaving for states that offer affordable housing and lower taxes.

Due to the population decline, the state will even lose one congressional seat in 2023, going from 53 to 52.

Home prices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other metropolitan centers are often in excess of $1 million and rising sharply. Billions of dollars in statewide spending has not made a visible difference to the homelessness crisis in many cities. All of this has fueled a reckoning with the leadership of the state, which has long been mythologized as a land of opportunity.

“A lot of Californians are unhappy in a lot of ways,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, citing record gas prices, rising cost of living and rising real estate prices that make home ownership unaffordable for many. working class families.

“The secession vote was like breaking china. It’s a way to get attention, but in the end it doesn’t accomplish much,” Pitney said.

Even Hagman said he doesn’t want to see his home state split, though he sees the bill’s passage as an important statement about the frustration with Sacramento.

“I want to continue to be a part of California right now,” he said. “I’m proud to be a Californian.”