I’ll take a dozen U.S. Senators please.
Having worked on the failed 2009-10 California Constitutional Convention campaign, several friends have recently asked me to comment on the proposal to split California into six different states.
Here’s the background: Last December, venture capitalist Tim Draper filed a petition to circulate for signatures a ballot measure which, if passed by the voters, would slice this California roll into six delicious pieces.
Last week, the measure was given Title and Summary from the Attorney General, meaning the petition is now clear for circulation. To qualify for the November 2014 ballot, the petition has 150 days to collect 807,615 signatures from registered California voters. In the coming months, get ready for a paid signature gatherer to shove the this petition (third from the top) in your face while you walk through the Whole Foods parking lot. Read the full initiative language here.
So, is splitting California up into six (or any number) of other states a good idea and, if so, could this ballot measure actually get it done?
Let’s start with the second question first. According to the U.S. Constitution, California may only split up with Congressional approval (something the ballot measure acknowledges). This is exceedingly unlikely for two reasons. First, because it would require 66 Senators to vote to reduce their own power by diluting the Senate with an addition ten votes (more on this in a moment). Second, this is Congress we’re talking about.
But let’s assume we woke up tomorrow morning and California was suddenly and irrevocably split into the lines conceived by Mr. Draper. What would happen?
Most immediately, the people of the new States of Jefferson and Central California (Redding, Shasta, Fresno, Bakersfield, etc.) would find themselves a whole lot poorer as the people of the new States of Silicon Valley and North, West and South California (San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego) shed themselves of regions that consume more tax revenues than they produce. The roads, schools and social services in California’s rural regions would deteriorate, while the wealthy urban coastal regions would get a financial boost.
But all the money in the world won’t do much good without water, and here’s where things get interesting. Jefferson wins big, seizing control of California’s three largest reservoirs (Shasta, Oroville and Trinity). Silicon Valley would lose the high-quality Hetch Hetchy and Mokelumne River projects to Central California, but would gain the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumping facilities, arguably the biggest prize of them all. These facilities can pump way more water than the new Silicon Valley will ever need, so the techies will be in for making a nice profit selling their excess water to Central California farmers and Southern California’s cities. At least the farmers could mitigate some of these costs by leveling a fee to wheel that water through through their portion of the California Aqueduct down to Los Angeles, who (shocker) loses big. Virtually every drop of water Los Angeles’s desert existence relies on is now located in another state. At least the San Dieagans (San Diego-ins?) get the Colorado River.
Meanwhile, the rest of America is none too happy. Where there were once two U.S. Senators (both Democrats) representing California, there’re now a dozen. As many as nine of them could be Democrats, obliterating any chance of the Republican Party, in its current form, to control the US Senate. In retaliation, the Republican Party pressures the Texas State Legislature (dominated by Republicans) to immediately divide Texas into five different states which, unlike California, Texas has a vaguely understood unilateral right to do under its 1845 Annexation Agreement. Seeing their relative power in the US Senate sharply decline, the Governors of New York and Florida (the next most populous states) demand their states split as well. One by one, the United States plunges into a Constitutional Crisis.
But this is all collateral damage. What, if anything, could California gain?
Mr. Draper claims he’s motivated by the belief that California has become ungovernable. From schools to roads, Californians suffer a Yosemite Valley-sized gap between the taxes we pay and the services we receive. But it’s unclear how partition would help, and in the poorer areas of the state it would very likely make things worse. In fact, Mr. Draper, 2009 called, it wants its rhetoric back. California voters have enacted significant budget, political and tax reforms since the blockbuster deficits and budget stalemates of the early 2000’s. California’s legislature has now passed on-time budgets three years and counting, while last month Governor Brown announced that the state was projecting a once-unimaginable $6 billion budget surplus. The Bay Area is experiencing an economic boom, and the housing market is finally recovering from the devastation of 2008. Unemployment is still relatively high, though that’s partly due to the drought’s negative impact on farm labor.
And yet, for all its faults, partition would at least strike an honorable blow against one of the great inequities of American democracy: the U.S. Senate. As we learned in high school civics, the Founding Fathers were able to bridge the political distrust between the large and small states through the creation of a bicameral legislature consisting of a House of Representatives elected from districts of equal population (proportionately benefiting the large states), and a U.S. Senate consisting of two Senators from each state (disproportionately benefiting the small states). The House was to reflect the popular passions of the people, while the Senate, as George Washington explained, would cool those passions like a saucer cools tea. Tragically, Washington died before ever explaining how a saucer actually cools tea.
Here’s the rub: Americans in large states are today proportionately far less represented in the U.S. Senate than their ancestors were. Consider this: the Constitution was negotiated in 1787, when the population difference between the largest state, Virginia, and the smallest state, Delaware, was 12-1. That means an American citizen in Delaware received twelve times the representation in the Senate as an American citizen in Virginia. Today, the ratio is 66-1. Today’s smallest state, Wyoming, is barely larger than colonial Virginia, while the largest, California, is the size of Poland. It’s difficult to imagine James Madison ever agreeing to such an extreme imbalance.
Had the Founders agreed in 1787 to index the 12-1 ratio to population growth and decennial reapportionment, we could have avoided this problem. Now that we’re stuck with it, the only likely solution would be a redrawing of all state boundaries to roughly equal size, or at least to sizes within the original 12-1 framework, and that would require a second national constitutional convention.
Any takers? Didn’t think so.
Proposition 19: Tax, Regulate, and Control Cannabis: YES. By far the most important item on the ballot. Proposition 19 represents a huge and painfully overdue blow to the insanely expensive and completely ineffective “war on drugs”. Sane drug policy cannot, and will not, ever come from the Federal Government, unless it first comes from the states. This is our chance. I cannot overstate the importance of this piece of legislation.
Proposition 20: Redistricting of Congressional Districts: YES. Remember way back in Politics 101 the term “Gerrymandering”?–the drawing of ludicrously shaped political districts designed to keep incumbents safe? This would end that. Californians approved a similar measure last election, but that law covered only the state legislature. This one covers Congressional districts and thereby completes the job.
Proposition 21: Vehicle Registration Fee for State Park Admittance. YES. Proposition 21 would tack on an $18 fee every time you register your car. The money would go entirely to the cash-starved state-parks, and would remain out of the reach of state legislators. In exchange, every California registered vehicle would receive free-entry to every state park. Now, I’m not one for compulsory membership, but I’m also not one to pass on a good deal. Saving the State-Parks while gaining unlimited access for $18? That is a GREAT deal.
Proposition 22: Prohibits State Raids on Local Government: YES. Sacramento is actually worse of than you think. For years, Sacramento has been disguising the full scope of it’s financial woes by stealing money from local governments. Proposition 22 would make such raids illegal, and force state-politicians to come to grips with a structurally dysfunctional business model.
Proposition 23: Suspend Environmental Protections: NO. This insulting attack on California’s burgeoning clean-energy industry is spearheaded by Texas Oil companies. Fuck them.
Proposition 24: Close Corporate Tax Breaks: YES. An extremely complicated array of closures and repeals of tax-loophole and tax-breaks for people who aren’t you.
Proposition 25: Democracy in Budgeting: YES. California is one of only three states in the union where the budget is controlled by minority-rule. This arrangement is actually principled in feudal-era notions of class and privilege, and it is in every way bad. Proposition 25 restores majority rule to California’s horrific budget process.
Proposition 26: No more democracy in fee raises: NO. Takes away majority rule in regards to state-fees. The reverse of Proposition 25 above.
Proposition 27: Abolishes sanity in redistricting reforms from last year: NO. This cynical and insulting measure comes from the state Democrat and Republican party leadership, and would give party bosses the ability to pick their voters rather than voters pick their representatives. Big NO.
A bit of a disagreement between Rob Stutzman, a conservative political consultant, and Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign. Stutzman earlier praised the Initiative process as a way to prevent “blood from flowing in the streets” by letting voters vent. Jacobs takes umbrage, cites Proposition 8, and makes the case “direct democracy was never intended to pit the civil rights of one group against those of another. This is how you spark a revolution, not avoid one.”
John G. Matsusaka is the president of the Initiatives and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. Lock-in spending associated with ballot initiatives, according to Matsusaka, account for approximately $39.407 billion of the state’s nearly $110 billion budget, representing, at most, 33%.
Whether this is a large or small percentage is besides the point, he argues. The chief complaint with the initiative process is that it assaults the mechanisms of representative democracy by voters locking-in spending without the consent of the legislature. The Wall Street Journal reported on this very debate in an October 2009 article. Matsusaka plainly doesn’t find the argument convincing: he notes that $34 of the $39 billion locked-in come from a single ballot initiative, Proposition 98, which locked levels of K-12 funding which, he argues, would have likely remained similar regardless of Proposition 98.
Matsusaka shows polls comparing the attitudes of citizens of non-initiative states with those in initiative-states. The polls suggest citizens in initiative-states enjoy policies closer to their own opinions.
The New America Foundation, also known as “Joe Matthews”, launched this morning the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. Thus far, about two hours in, we’ve seen some commentary on Californian’s support of the ballot initiative by race, voter competence (with regards to understanding initiative language…they’re better at it than you think), and the nail-biting quest to dethrone serpentine from its lofty perch as the official State-Rock.
As a member of the late Repair California campaign, I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion on the state of government reform efforts, put on by the University of California Students Association. The panel was part of their annual summit, held in Sacramento, and was designed partly as a strategy session for the upcoming “March Forth” protests. The event plans to be huge: Universities from around the world are reportedly taking part, as students everywhere highlight the social, economic, and cultural value of higher education.
I gladly accepted the invitation, and delivered this message: This is your moment. Don’t blow it. For the record, “blowing it” looks like what happened in Berkeley last Thursday: a riot.
In what the local media referred to as a “warm-up” protest, several dozen young people were filmed destroying downtown Berkeley. The Daily Cal featured amateur video of young people tipping trash cans, lighting them aflame, insulting police officers, smashing windows, and chanting something about the littered streets being “their streets”. With their faces sheathed behind bandannas, it wasn’t entirely clear if the crowd was protesting Sacramento or holding-up the railroad.
It took a little bit of diving into the reports to find that most of the people involved weren’t students, just typical street kids taking a break from their usual activities of asking me for money and not bathing.
That the rioters weren’t students should matter. It doesn’t. Student leaders were mute in their disapproval of the pointlessness, assuming they disapproved at all. The result was the disconcertingly powerful way in which conservatives wed their narrative to the news reports pouring in from a conflict-seeking media: somebody else’s ungrateful spoiled-brat kids are running amok in a beautiful city and wasting your hard-earned money.
Make no mistake, this is a bad development for the students and the universities. Students have been shouldering a disproportionate share of California’s great budgetary burden, and thus have legitimate, no, very legitimate, grievances. In response, many students have worked hard to build an opposition movement. With the national attention span measurable only in iotas, students cannot afford to surrender a single headline to packs of street kids who care little, and understand even less, about California’s perilous financial system and the network of world-class colleges and universities that depend on it.
One gets the troubling sensation that students were loath to forcefully condemn the riots out of deference to the Bay Area’s tradition of civil activism. This is the sort of thing Berkeley does. If so, this is an unspeakably pitiful development. A mob that masks the sound of breaking glass and smoldering refuse with here-and-there chants plagiarized from the civil rights movement is still a mob. And while such incantations may be enough to placate professors, students, and liberal pundits, I’d be surprised if the shopkeeper or the taxpayer are as impressed. Shame on those who turn their cheeks while the reputation of a worthy and important movement is dragged through the mud by hooligans, left-wing or not.
Instead of anger, chaos, and anarchy, instead of hanging effigies of the Governor, the students should make it their singular mission to rekindle the hope and confidence that was once called the California dream, and to make themselves that dream’s indispensable component. Students, almost by definition, stand for youth, energy, and idealism: ingredients for inspiration that are perennially ripe. So here’s an idea. Drape yourselves in California flags and, by the tens of thousands, and walk peacefully up streets singing the Beach Boys. Doing so will impress not just your cosmopolitan university neighbors, but your redneck uncle too.