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Split Personality : The battle between Northern and Southern California is heating up. When the dust settles, there might be three Golden States. Here's a preview.

July 25, 1993|S. J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Make no mistake: The current talk of splitting this state into three states is not just a creative rearrangement of California's parts. It's secession.

It's spurred by the northern counties' conviction that they don't belong in California. This is rural, conservative, upstate country, and but for a minor trick of geography, they'd be Montana, Colorado, Idaho. So they're backing legislation that would set them free.

This is potentially serious stuff, in spite of the jokes, most involving names. We could have (reading from the top down) Logland, Fogland and Smogland. Or Insolvent, Impoverished and Indigent. Or better, Insolvent, Indigent and Insane.

Secession is also an American tradition. The colonists seceded from the British Empire. The South seceded from the Union. Several states were created by splitting off from a parent--Vermont from New York, Maine from Massachusetts, West Virginia from Virginia. In California, people have talked secession for years--sometimes the south, sometimes the north.

Secession seems a particularly good idea when residents of "one section of a state feel overwhelmed by the other section--the one with a preponderance of legislative representation and power," says historian Stan Mottaz, an administrator at Humboldt State University.

California's rural north counties are unhappy under a Legislature dominated by urban interests. This is becoming a national malaise, from New York's vast rural upstate counties, resentful about being outnumbered and outvoted by metropolitan New York, to Nebraska's western Panhandle, for heaven's sake, feeling beaten down by Omaha and Lincoln.

It doesn't make sense "that L.A. should tell us how to manage and harvest our timber and I get to decide whether the L.A. school district should be broken up," says Shasta County Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run). He's the sponsor of the bill to put a measure on the November, 1994, ballot seeking voter opinion on a three-way split, with one boundary north of San Francisco and Sacramento, and the other north of Los Angeles.

The vote could be surprising. Even people outside the north counties are frustrated by government in general and California's in particular, given a Legislature so gridlocked by divergent interests that it's almost dysfunctional. Why not just wipe the slate clean and start over?

The division takes into account not just feelings but practical concerns. Statham and his supporters have therefore estimated each region's contribution to the state's General Fund, added up the state subsidies and services used by each, and reassured themselves that none would be in big trouble.

Given our lack of interstate tariffs, it wouldn't matter that certain resources would suddenly be exclusive to one state or another. When dates are all grown in South California and nuts all in Central, there will still be granola.

But other resources can't be split. Under Statham's plan, none of the UCs or state universities would treat residents of the other two states as "out-of-state." Professional licenses and credentials would be recognized by all three. The existing water-distribution system would remain intact: It may drain his turf dry, but Statham needs Southland support.

No one talks of how we'll divide the state bird, the state flower, the state tree, the state motto. Maybe in each case, whoever can name it gets to keep it--the whole thing.

Nor has anyone really tried to visualize these new states. So we will.

North

The 28 north counties, often called "the extreme north counties" these days, would remain sparse and rural, with a population of 2.4 million spread over 55,422 square miles. "Big" cities would be Eureka, Redding, Santa Rosa, and only the last has more than 100,000 people.

Given an area heavy on scenic resources, there's logging, fishing, mining and, of course, recreational development. Residents would like to manage all as they alone see fit, free at least of state regulators and environmentalists. Greater local autonomy might spell the end for the spotted owl, but fish and game might increase with greater allocations of money and effort.

There are plenty of fruit orchards here (pears, apples, peaches, prune plums, grapes), various kinds of livestock and a good cash crop of marijuana. The new state would get a lot of Sacramento Valley farmland (grains and dairy products), though not Sacramento County itself. Humboldt Bay is a nice little port, if somewhat depressed since cutbacks in the timber industry.

Overnight, North California would be statistically homogenized. Its racial composition would be 93% white, less than 2% black and slightly more than 3% Asian. Only 9.4% of the overall population would be of Hispanic origin. According to the 1990 Census, the north would have the lowest average family income of the three new states--$40,547. It would have only one UC within its border--Davis--and only three of the 20 state universities.

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