There’s nothing like a guy with a few million bucks to lend instant credibility to a previously penny-ante movement to split up the state of California.
Venture capitalist Tim Draper of Silicon Valley has filed paperwork for a November ballot measure that would divide California into six states, calling the Golden State as presently constituted “too big and bloated.”
“Six Californias is an opportunity, an opportunity for Californians to get a fresh start, an opportunity for Californians to build new platforms for growth and prosperity,” Mr. Draper said at a Dec. 23 live-streamed press conference. “An opportunity to be awesome.”
Mr. Draper’s involvement was an unexpected Christmas present for Mark Baird and Liz Bowen, who live near the Oregon border and help lead a group that has been working to split off California’s northernmost counties into a 51st state called Jefferson.
Mr. Draper’s proposed six states are called, from north to south: Jefferson, North California, Silicon Valley, Central California, West California, and South California. His money will be needed: Proponents need to collect 1 million signatures just to get the idea on the ballot this fall.
“I think it’s wonderful and excellent that someone of means has taken in an interest in our lack of representation,” Mr. Baird said.
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The Jefferson state movement isn’t the only secession undertaking in California — similar discussions have cropped up in the Central Valley and Southern California — but Mr. Draper’s decision to join the grass roots is a potential game-changer.
A third-generation Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Mr. Draper, 55, grew up in California and founded the firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. He also is known as an education maverick: He launched the Draper University of Heroes in San Mateo, a private boarding school program designed to help students ages 18 to 26 become entrepreneurs.
Mr. Draper said California has gone from being a national leader in education and infrastructure to a dysfunctional and unwieldy collective that has become “untenable and ungovernable.”
“There have been many good people governing our state for many years and they work very hard for Californians, but the results are horrendous,” he said. “We are the state that charges the most for the worst service. We are simply too big and bloated. This is not the fault of anyone. This has just happened. The status quo is not going to work for us.”
Mr. Draper has shown that he is willing to put his money where his mouth is: He sank $20 million into Proposition 38, a 2000 initiative to create a state-funded private-school voucher system. That measure lost by 71 percent to 29 percent.
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Asked how much he plans to spend on the initiative, Mr. Draper said “as little as possible, but I will make sure it gets on the ballot so that Californians have a chance to make this a reality.”
Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said California’s sheer size — the state ranks first in population with 38 million and third in area behind Alaska and Texas — lends credibility to the ungovernable argument.
“There’s more than a germ of truth to that,” said Mr. Pitney. “Just look at the size of our state Senate districts — any one of them has more people than the entire population of South Dakota. So there are real questions about the relationship of the people to their government.”
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.
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.”