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Splitsville Sequel: Northern county tries to ditch California again

September 5, 2013

They say that breaking up is hard to do—but that’s never stopped Siskiyou County, where an aggrieved county board of supervisors just declared its intent to secede from the state of California.

It’s but the latest twist in a dysfunctional relationship: more than 200 times since California’s founding, would-be separatists have campaigned to split the most populous state into two or three smaller ones. As an article in the Sumer 2012 issue of California magazine explained, a few of these efforts have come shockingly close to succeeding. Most, however, have proven to be quixotic, aiming not for an actual partition but to get the attention of state lawmakers in Sacramento.

That was certainly the point in the early 1940s, when renegade counties in northernmost California and southern Oregon banded together to establish themselves as a new State of Jefferson. Motorists passing through on Highway 99 skidded to a stop at  roadblocks thrown up by rifle-toting rebels, who affably slapped their windshields with stickers proclaiming “I have visited JEFFERSON, the 49th State.” Secession fever was reaching a crescendo in early December of 1941—drawing reporters from Time and Life Magazine and a crew filming a Hollywood newsreel—when Pearl Harbor changed the subject.

Since then, however, the spirit of Jefferson has lived on as what the locals call a “state of mind.”

And then this week in Yreka, as an overflow crowd roared approval, Siskiyou supervisors endorsed a proposal that labeled  California “ungovernable in its present form” and said the remedy was “start over” by joining with other neglected counties to create a State of Jefferson. The 4-to-1 vote re-inflames the passion that has flickered for decades among the farmers, loggers, ranchers and others in the state’s sparsely populated, conservative hinterlands: Del Norte, Shasta, Siskiyou and Modoc counties.

“I was born in 1977 and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a governor in my lifetime. They never bother to come here—we couldn’t get Gov. (Jerry) Brown or Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger to come up here and even listen to us. So why would we want to be in their state?” asks Supervisor Brandon Criss. A fourth-generation Siskiyouan farmer/rancher raised in a town that boasts the tallest flagpole west of the Mississippi River, he did his master’s thesis (an online public administration program from Norwich University) on reforms to grant rural counties greater representation in California policy.

What else have California officials done to rankle folks in Siskiyou County? Let us count the ways: overtaxing them, planning to dismantle dams along the Klamath River, restricting access to guns, reinterpreting rules to make it harder to divert water from cricks and rivers for irrigation, assessing new fees for rural fire protection, and enacting air quality standards more applicable to cityfolk. “Let’s just say you cannot carpool on a tractor,” says Criss.

And of course, the fact that Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco wield so much control over state policy leaves rural citizens feeling as forlorn as orphans. This despite the fact that counties most inclined to clamor for separation also tend to be relatively poorer—paying less in taxes and consuming more in services—than their more prosperous urban counterparts.

The last time secessionism surfaced was just two years ago, when Riverside County supervisors backed a 2011 summit to explore creation of a new state composed of Southern California’s conservative inland counties. A spokesman for the governor’s office labeled it “a supremely ridiculous waste of everybody’s time,” and asked “What is this, 1860?”

“Obviously if we were creating California from scratch, we’d do a lot of things differently,” says Ted Lempert, a former Bay Area assemblyman and political science lecturer at UC Berkeley. But he has told us that any attempt to break the state’s bureaucracy and infrastructure in two “a Herculean undertaking—painful and overwhelming, and thus ultimately not worth doing.”

In any case, the discussion is purely academic anyway. Dividing California would require the assent of California’s Legislature and governor, and Congress. Last time we checked, getting that crowd to agree on anything was a lost cause.

—Vicki Haddock

Curious about how close California has come to an actual split in its lifetime? The details are in our magazine article here.

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