It began as the idea of one eccentric entrepreneur, but now has 1.3 million signatories backing it: the case for breaking California up into six separate states is gathering steam. When the Six Californias campaign began, most serious commentators thought it was crackpot scheme, a pipe-dream of a few people that had no hope of gaining traction. They have been proved wrong. To an extent anyway.
The idea driving Six Californias is that the state is too large and its politics to disparate to be managed by the incompetent and venal state government in Sacramento. Anyone who knows anything about California knows it is choked with regulations to the point where running a business, let alone starting one, is desperately difficult. Indeed, California has recently been placed in the top three least friendly states for small businesses. For a state that relies on start-ups to stay afloat at all, that is a pretty bad sign for things to come.
And it’s not just business that suffers. Public utilities are being stretched to the limit thanks to grossly inefficient investments by the state government. Other public services, like education, have deteriorated in recent decades to being among the worst in the nation.
Conceived and bankrolled by billionaire Timothy Draper, who has been described as one of the world’s most successful venture capitalists, Six Californias is seeking to radically alter the status quo. Draper is famous for making big bets on new technologies, and clearly his betting nature is turning political. His stated aim is to break California into six states that would be better administered and more politically harmonious in their internal affairs.
California is a massive state. With 38 million citizens and the 8th largest economy in the world, California has come to be ungovernable in the traditional model of states. This has not been helped by Sacramento’s attempts to micromanage the affairs of Californians.
Six Californias argues that six smaller states would be far more representative and responsive to their constituents. That is music to the ears of any supporter of liberty. After all, the larger and more centralized the government, the less accountability to the citizens it has. The breakup would divide California into states somewhat closer in size to other states in the union, and would no doubt be much easier for new state government to manage.
The project has succeeded in gaining ballot access. The 1.3 million signatures recorded far exceed the 808 thousand that was necessary to trigger a state-wide referendum. The vote will likely be scheduled for 2016.
What would happen if Californians voted for the breakup? That is a knotty constitutional question already being addressed by scholars and politicians. The Constitution does not allow for the instantaneous inclusion of new states carved out of old ones, so some suggest that each successor state of California would have to petition to be readmitted to the union as full states. However, there is a degree of precedent, albeit a rather old one. During the Civil War, part of Virginia refused to secede from the United States, declaring itself West Virginia in 1861 and was recognized by the federal government as a full state in 1863. Such a process might lie in the future for California.
Other sticky issues persist. The questions of how debt would be divided and the rights over public works and resources would all be disputed by the successor governments. Such disagreements will no doubt be extremely rancorous, probably carrying on for years after the referendum.
The question of what to do in the event of a breakup may, however, be moot since it seems, at least for now, that voters would not choose to break up their home state. For all its flaws, California is still considered home to millions of people, and many of them do identify with the state as a real polity of which they are a part. To sever those bonds and to shatter a state is an exceptionally difficult thing to accomplish. In all likelihood the referendum will fail.
But the prospect of failure to create six Californias does not make the project a waste of time. Indeed, it is extremely valuable whether it succeeds or not. There is clearly an appetite among many Californians for government that is more decentralized and more responsive to the needs of citizens. That can be accomplished without anything so radical as breaking the state apart. Devolution of power to regions, counties, and cities would go a long way toward creating the accountability and better, leaner government Six Californias is after.
The momentum from the Six Californias project should be carried through, no matter what the referendum results in. If the state is to continue to be an important part of the nation’s economy it must be willing to change.