Cal-If-Ornia: Could It Be Three?

Proposal to divide California gains ground in the Legislature. Separatists say the state is too big, disparate, and unwieldy.

HERE we go again: They want to split up California. Only this time the idea isn't to divide it in half - but thirds.

Nor is this just the whim of some rural lawmaker trying to send a message of alienation and frustration to his urban brethren, or attempting to exclude that "godless" sprawl of stucco and decadence, Los Angeles, from the rest of beloved California. A proposal to let the voters decide if they want to divide up the state actually passed the state Assembly last week, something that hasn't happened in 134 years.

It was in 1859, you may recall, that both houses of the state Legislature approved and the governor signed into law a bill to slice California into two states.

But the measure was abandoned in Congress, which has to sign off on any such cartographic carving, because federal lawmakers were preoccupied with their own little problem at the time, the Civil War.

While California is still probably more in danger of being splintered by the San Andreas fault than any legislative move, the separatist movement has gained enough momentum that it is no longer given credence only by Jay Leno.

"Nobody has taken it seriously to this point," says Bud Lembke, editor of Political Pulse, a Sacramento newsletter. "Now they will have to."

Leading the split-the-state charge, as he has almost since arriving in Sacramento 17 years ago, is Assemblyman Stan Statham (R) of tiny Oak Run in northern California. He and other separatists argue that the state has become a second national government - too big and unwieldy to rule effectively. Its population is larger than 144 countries.

They believe dividing the state, especially into thirds, will make lawmakers more responsive to citizen needs. Assembly members now represent nearly 400,000 people, about 10 times the national average.

"I have come to the irrevocable conclusion that California's government is dysfunctional," Mr. Statham says. "We have known that California is divided. It is about time we act as adults and make it legal."

Proponents believe the move would give the region more clout: Instead of two US senators, the Californias would have six. Others consider this logic as valid as fool's gold. Division, they argue, would only diffuse the state's economic and political power. "If we put this measure before the voters, we legislators are saying we don't believe California is governable anymore," says Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R) of Fullerton.

Behind the move are tensions that have always made California Janus-faced: north versus south, rural versus urban, rich versus poor. There have been 26 attempts to break up the state since 1859.

Historian Kevin Starr says one other dimension of the current movement is concern in northern and central California about illegal immigration and the increasing minority and third-world makeup of southern California. This separatist drive, he says, coincides with a push for greater local autonomy in many first-world countries, including the United States.

"It has a long way to go before becoming a reality," Mr. Starr says of the divide-California movement. "But it has to be taken seriously as a symptom of possible things to come."

California's boundaries always did seem to make less than Golden Stately sense. When leaders first drew statehood maps, they included Baja and parts of Nevada and Arizona. But they later dropped these because they thought the state would be too big for Washington to accept.

The state didn't evolve out of one cohesive cultural system like Massachusetts in the Puritan period or Texas in its days as a Republic. It was settled at different times by different people for different reasons - early Spaniards in southern California and the 49ers in gold-rush country. The Central Valley was settled by farmers after irrigation was developed early this century. It is an amalgam of disparate economic, cultural, and geomorphic units.

Statham's legislation would put a nonbinding resolution on the ballot in 1994. It divides the state north of San Francisco and in the Tehachapi Mountains south of Bakersfield. That means San Diego and Los Angeles would be in the southern state, Santa Barbara and San Francisco in the middle, and rural northern California in the third.

The bill imposes conditions on such a move - that all three units be economically viable, that taxes not be raised as a result of the division, that existing water pacts remain intact.

Do not plan on changing any maps just yet. First, the measure has to pass the state Senate.

Though the body approved a two-state bill in 1965, its current Democratic leader, David Roberti, says an advisory referendum would just create "divisiveness for no purpose. A lot of people would vote aye to send a message with no real effect."

Then the governor would have to sign off on something that might eventually make him chief executive of an incredible shrinking state.

And the voters? Last June, 27 out of 31 northern and central California counties voted in favor of cutting the state in two. But there has always been a hesitancy to redraw borders in southern California, which is dependent on the north for water.

At some point, Congress would have to go along, too - in other words, agree to give the new California states four new US senators.

Still, some analysts give Statham, a man of P.T. Barnum sales skills, credit for making separatism something other than a gag line at government seminars.

John Syer, a professor of government at California State University at Sacramento, says cutting the state in thirds is a particularly shrewd move. It allows residents in the timber-dependent far north to be rid of their Nemesis, San Francisco, while allowing San Francisco to jettison its vacuous villain, Los Angeles.

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