Continued from page 1

That’s the impetus behind the Jefferson state movement. Boards of supervisors in two California counties that abut Oregon — Modoc and Siskiyou — have approved measures in support of the Jefferson state declaration, and Tahoma County has agreed to place the question on the ballot. Alturas, the seat of Modoc County, is 306 miles by car — nearly five hours — from the state capital in Sacramento.

Mr. Baird said the problem is that state officials are out of touch with the needs of people outside the urban centers. Laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment may sound good in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but they have resulted in an economic death spiral for the resource-dependent northern rural counties, he said.

“This movement is just about people whose lives don’t work because they don’t have representation,” said Mr. Baird. “They wonder why we’re called the ‘welfare counties.’ It’s because our economy is being strangled by government regulation.”

Interest in creating states has been on the rise, mainly in rural counties unhappy with legislative directives from far-off urban capitals. Similar 51st-state movements were launched last year in rural Colorado and Maryland.

Congressional hurdle

If the six-state initiative passes in California, residents would have three years to discuss whether the proposed borders make sense for them. The initiative’s language gives the governor until Jan. 1, 2018, to send the request to Congress.

Obtaining congressional approval wouldn’t be easy, given that each new state would receive two senators, and “increasing the chance of more Republican senators is not something [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid is going to like,” Mr. Pitney said.

“Also, supporters of secession would have to deal with uncertainties, like how would you set up the new governments, and who would pay for it,” said Mr. Pitney. “Economic arguments tend to be the death of secession movements. You lose the economies of scale.”

Despite the enthusiasm of some in California’s less-populous precincts, the idea has not taken hold more generally in the state. A Field Poll released Dec. 11 found that just a quarter of state residents supported the idea of a breakup, compared with 59 percent who wanted to keep the state intact.

Pollsters Mark DiCamillo and Mervin Field wrote that opposition “is bipartisan, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans and non-partisans opposed. While there is slightly greater support for the proposals among voters in inland counties and parts of Northern California outside the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Valley, even in these areas more disapprove than approve of the idea.”

Even so, Mr. Draper said, the costs of dividing the state are nothing compared with the economic hardship in California’s future in the absence of drastic action. The state is wrestling with a $400 billion debt, although the fiscal outlook has improved under Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

“I know change is hard for people,” said Mr. Draper. “But the California slide is accelerating, and it will only get worse. We’ll have economic bursts that make us feel like things are fine again, but each downturn will be worse than the last if we don’t change our system.”