Dividing California

December 07, 1993

California has long been associated with weird politics. Here's the latest: Voters may get to vote on dividing their state into three parts. Since becoming a state in 1850, Californians have attempted to split their state dozens of times. The current bill, AB3, has passed the state Assembly and is being reviewed by two Senate committees. If passed, there will be an advisory vote next November.

The proposal has found support in the conservative, rural north, where residents have traditionally wanted to separate themselves from California's urban woes. Statewide, the bill has picked-up on sentiment that the needs of the state are too diverse. Others feel California has become too large, with 30 million people and the seventh largest economy in the world. A side benefit: California would gain four new U.S. senators.

The three states would be:

* North California -- all the counties from the Oregon border to Marin and Yolo counties, just north of San Francisco. It would have a population of 2.35 million and a budget of $3.6 billion. It would be slightly less populous than Mississippi.

* Central California -- from San Francisco south to Santa Barbara. The state would have a population of 10.5 million people, a budget of $15 billion and be roughly comparable to Illinois.

* South California -- from the Mexican border north to Ventura and San Bernardino counties, including Los Angeles and San Diego. It would have a population of 17.5 million and a budget of $27 billion. Only New York would have more people.

Some Californians probably feel empowered by the idea of bringing state government closer to home. But the bill raises questions. Southern California is dependent on the north's water. How much would the northern state charge? How would the state's vast higher-education system be divided? Northern California, with its high unemployment and the largest percentage of welfare and state Medicaid recipients, could be headed for financial trouble. Opponents accuse the predominantly white north of trying to separate from urban problems elsewhere in the state.

The bill sounds good on the surface, but it is not a cure-all for such concerns as ethnic and racial tension, unemployment and inadequate education. If AB3 does make it on the ballot in 1994 and wins a majority, the California legislature would have to draft a plan acceptable to the governor and Congress would have to pass a statehood bill acceptable to the president. Don't count on it.

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