Divide and Conquer : Legislator Wages Uphill Battle to Split Up State

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having scaled daunting obstacles, the drive to break California into three states has progressed further in the Legislature than at any time since separatists got their way in the Gold Rush era.

And, if latter-day separatist Assemblyman Stan Statham prevails, Californians next year will vote on his plan to divide the state into three smaller and, theoretically, more manageable pieces.

But steep political barriers remain for the plan and for Statham, a newly announced Republican contender for lieutenant governor.

Even if his bill survives what is expected to be a hostile reception in the state Senate, it could be vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson, who opposes splitting California.

"I'm not overly panicked," said Statham, 44, a moderate Republican from the north state hamlet of Oak Run. "I have just about one year to convince the Senate and governor to put the question on the ballot."

Although the idea is widely regarded as another quirky California political notion, Statham predicts that it will bloom into a popular political issue that will force Wilson to sign a bill putting the breakup on the ballot.

Results of the election would be advisory and non-binding on the 1995 Legislature, which could send an official breakup plan to Washington for the final say of Congress.

As Statham sees it, Californians believe that the quality of their lives is hemorrhaging so seriously that they will embrace a radical, smaller-is-better form of government as a life preserver.

"I can't guarantee a perfect world, but I know that divided, more homogeneous Californias will be better than the gridlocks we have now," he said. "California's No. 1 problem is state government. The only way to get a new government is get a new state."

Each California--North, Central and South--would have its own new Constitution, Legislature and governmental structure, Statham said. Theoretically, each would focus narrower attention on issues of specific concern to its interests, he said.

Statham foresees legislators of the proposed state of South California paying attention to such home-front issues as smog, traffic congestion and crime. He said they no longer "will worry about how timber should be harvested in the north."

His bill would divide the state into three roughly equal geographical entities, with dividing lines north of San Francisco and Sacramento, and at the Tehachapi Mountains.

Based on 1990 census data, Statham estimates that South California would be at least the second most populous state in the nation at 17.4 million, slightly behind New York. By contrast, shrunken North California would be home to 2.3 million people, a vast, water-rich rural territory whose residents historically have cringed at any association with Los Angeles and the thirsty Southland.

Drawing from studies by the Assembly Office of Research and the state Department of Finance, Statham estimates that South California's annual state budget at about $27 billion, again putting it in the same league as the state of New York. The budget for California now totals $52.1 billion.

The proposed states would be roughly comparable in size geographically. Statham says each would be more united by common interests.

Since California was admitted to the Union in 1850, more than two dozen plans to split the state have been offered. But only one--in 1859--cleared both houses of the Legislature, received the governor's signature and went to Congress. There, it was shelved because of the outbreak of the Civil War.

In June, the Assembly approved Statham's tri-state bill and sent it to the Senate, the first time such a measure had cleared the lower chamber in 134 years.

Three Californias

Southern California would become the most populous state in the nation--with the biggest budget--under a proposal by Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run) to split California into three parts. Here are the highlights of his plan, which would put Statham's district in North California.

North California Population: 2,350,725 Budget: $3.6 billion Counties: 28 Del Norte Siskiyou Modoc Humboldt Trinity Shasta Lassen Mendocino Tehama Plumas Lake Colusa Glenn Butte Yuba Sierra Nevada Sonoma Napa Yolo Sutter Placer El Dorado Amador Alpine Calaveras Tuolumne Marin States with smaller populations: 17 States with smaller budgets: 24 *

Central California Population: 10,500,272 Budget: $15 billion Counties: 23 San Mateo San Francisco Alameda Contra Costa Solano Sacramento San Joaquin Stanislaus Mariposa Mono Santa Cruz Santa Clara Merced Madera San Benito Monterey Fresno Inyo Tulare Kings San Luis Obispo Kern Santa Barbara States with smaller populations: 42 States with smaller budgets: 47 *

South California Population: 17,499,828 Budget: $27 billion Counties: 7 Ventura Los Angeles San Bernardino Orange Riverside San Diego Imperial States with smaller populations: 48 States with smaller budgets: 49 Source: Office of Assemblyman Stan Statham

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