Would two Californias work better than one? Or should we all stick together as one big semi-happy family?
On Tuesday, voters in 31 counties will get the chance to weigh in on this meaty matter, deciding on an advisory plebiscite that asks whether the Golden State should be chopped into two parts.
Echoing gripes that first rumbled through California in the mid-1800s, the separatists say the state has grown unmanageably large and is saddled with a government that is unresponsive to the people. The solution, they argue, is to scale down.
"Think of (California) as a marriage gone bad," recommends Republican Assemblyman Stan Statham of Redding, the separatists' indefatigable leader. "Let's act like adults, split up the community property and go about living out the rest of our lives."
But opponents warn that Balkanizing California would bring few benefits. Statham's proposal, some charge, is a divisive, election-year gimmick that undermines efforts to tackle the state's troubles.
"I think it's naive to believe that splitting one part of the state from the other will make us immune" to problems, Humboldt County Supervisor Stan Dixon said. "Throwing the baby out with the bath water is not the best way to approach this thing."
Most of the counties voting on the split-state question are in the rural north--places where local industries are ailing and alienation from the state's burgeoning big cities runs deep. The only urban counties that agreed to place the issue on the ballot are in the Bay Area--San Francisco, San Mateo and Solano.
Maurice Johanessen, a Shasta County supervisor, said support for a breakup is strong in small-town California.
"The rural counties are struggling desperately, and we're tired of nobody listening to us in Sacramento," said Johanessen, who complains that state-imposed programs and regulations have pushed many sparsely populated counties toward economic ruin. "Our needs, wants and priorities are different from those in the cities."
Next door in Siskiyou County, Supervisor Patti Mattingly agrees: "There's a lot of disgust around here right now, so the time is ripe to start over, to build a new government from the ground up."
Despite the rhetoric, the split-state debate is nearly as old as California itself, and numerous secessionist efforts have fizzled. Only one bid has been taken as seriously as this one--in 1859, when Los Angeles Assemblyman Andres Pico pushed for a break at the Tehachapi Mountains.
This year, some observers predict that the public's anti-incumbent mood and anxiety over the Los Angeles riots could hoist the split-state measures to victory. They have no legal effect, however, and any plan to divide California would need approval from the state Legislature and Congress.
While no firm boundaries appear on the ballot, Statham wants to lop off California's 27 northernmost counties to create a new, Iowa-sized state of about 2.1 million people. The territory would include Lake Tahoe, the Napa Valley and Mendocino; Santa Rosa, its most populous city, might be the capital.
At least one report concludes that this new California--along with the shrunken remnant left behind--would be economically viable. But the report, by the Assembly Office of Research, says a more prudent boundary would be a straight east-west line in the vicinity of Kern County.
Despite this promising economic review, a poll suggests the split-state proposal faces long odds on Tuesday. Two-thirds of Californians queried by the California Poll disapproved of the idea. In Los Angeles County, residents rejected the plan by 73% to 20%.
Elsewhere in the state, Sacramento County residents will be asked Tuesday to uphold an ordinance that bans smoking in workplaces and public buildings in unincorporated areas of the county. The measure also would require restaurants to be entirely nonsmoking by 1994; currently, 40% of restaurant seats are reserved for nonsmokers.
The bitterly contested campaign pits a coalition of medical groups against tobacco interests. The anti-smoking forces have enjoyed support from former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, but they have been outspent 30 to 1 by the tobacco companies, which raised $1.7 million.
Voting on a Split
Here are the 31 counties that will vote Tuesday on non-binding measures to gauge support for the idea of splitting California into two states: