Column: Should California secede? How the state is politically out of step with the rest of the country


Not since 2010 has California felt itself politically so out of step with the times. That year the state resisted the nationwide wave of anti-incumbent, anti-regulation and anti-big government voting to elect Jerry Brown as governor, ease the passage of big-money state budgets and turn away a challenge to its pioneering greenhouse gas regulations.

This election day, California voters tightened gun control, extended taxes on the rich, hiked cigarette taxes, legalized marijuana, boosted multilingual education — and of course provided Hillary Clinton with all of her winning margin of 2 million popular votes, and then some, in her losing campaign for president.

It’s impossible to look at the Trump campaign and not see a direct threat to the civil liberties and dignity of California citizens.

— Billionaire activist Tom Steyer


No wonder the election has inspired talk of California’s seceding from the United States. The nascent campaign, organized under the banner of the Yes California Independence Campaign and heralded by the Twitter hashtag #Calexit, has been energized by remarks by Brown, and others, that a Trump election would necessitate “building a wall around California” to preserve its forward-looking policies against a reactionary federal regime. And why not, the argument goes. After all, with a gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion, the state’s economy ranks sixth in the world, sandwiched between Britain and France.

Secession talk is more valuable as a pointer to all the ways that California and federal policies are likely to come into conflict during the next few years than as a formula for practical politics.

“It’s impossible to look at the Trump campaign and not see a direct threat to the civil liberties and dignity of California citizens,” says Tom Steyer, the progressive billionaire who in recent years has focused his energy on combating climate change via his organization NextGen Climate.

To dispense with the prospect of California’s seceding from the union: On the gonna-happen scale, it’s a Not. “We’d either have to win the ensuing civil war or have Congress kiss us goodbye,” says Joel D. Aberbach, director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA. “There isn’t a procedure for seceding” in the Constitution. The very notion of the U.S. as a divisible entity was settled by the Civil War.

A constitutional amendment is the longest of long shots. It must be approved by a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states (38 of the 50).

But the conflicts between state and federal policy will be serious. Here’s a look at what may be some of the most important.


Climate change: California has been among the national leaders in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and as recently as September strengthened its policies with a law mandating the reduction of climatologically harmful emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Its auto emission rules traditionally have set a benchmark for the auto industry and federal regulators.

During his campaign, Trump dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax and pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which already has been ratified by 113 of the 197 signatory countries. The U.S. ratified the agreement by presidential order on Sept. 3.

“The single biggest achievement of the Obama administration in energy and climate was to get those countries to agree,” Steyer said. “It was an example of the best kind of American leadership — moral, technical, financial.”

Since the election, Trump has backed off his assertions about climate change and his promise to withdraw from the Paris pact. If he makes good on his threat, however, American leadership on climate change will pass to the states. Brown has pledged to keep California in the forefront of that movement, and earlier this month sent a state delegation to a U.N. climate change conference in Marrakech, Morocco.

That just continues the sort of state-level leadership that has emerged in recent years. “Over the past decade, Congress has not passed a single bill that takes direct aim at climate change,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg observed in a recent speech. “Yet at the same time, the U.S. has led the world in reducing emissions.”

Trump could stifle federal funding for crucial research on climate change. One of his science advisors says he plans to eliminate NASA spending on earth science, calling it “politically correct environmental monitoring” and refocusing the agency exclusively on space research. That mirrors congressional Republicans’ approach to NASA, whose role in climate monitoring they disdain even though it has made crucial contributions to understanding of global warming.

Immigration: Trump campaigned on a pledge to cut off federal funding to “sanctuary cities” as part of his crackdown on illegal immigration. His chief of staff-designate, Reince Priebus, reiterated the policy in an interview after the election.

These are cities whose police departments aren’t required to check the immigration status of people they stop or arrest or to notify U.S. immigration officials of the status of undocumented persons they release from custody. The roster of sanctuary cities includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland; an estimated 1 million of the nation’s 11 million immigrants without legal status, many of whom Trump has threatened to deport, live in L.A. County.

Leaders of those cities have pledged to keep protecting immigrants and fight Trump’s proposed cuts in federal funding cuts, which would require congressional action. The stakes are high: Los Angeles receives about $500 million a year in federal funding for such municipal services as port security and homeless shelters. But there are practical as well as moral reasons for cities to steer clear of immigration enforcement. Complicity with immigration agents shatters trust in police in immigrant-rich communities, complicating street-level patrolling. And with undocumented immigrants part of the fabric of diverse communities, rigorous enforcement can have bad economic consequences.

Trump’s anti-immigrant stance has spurred calls to action to protect potential deportees. The Los Angeles Unified School District says it will rebuff any federal request for students’ immigration status. Cal State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, whose system includes as many as 10,000 students without legal documentation, has said that campus police won’t honor federal requests for deportation holds. Last week University of California President Janet Napolitano stated that UC campus police departments would not involve themselves in investigations of the immigration status of individuals on campus and ruled out “joint efforts” on immigration with federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies. She said the university aimed to “vigorously protect the privacy and civil rights of the undocumented members of the UC community.”

An estimated one in three of the 742,000 “Dreamers” — young people who were brought to this country by their parents without documentation and granted protection from deportation under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA — lives in California. Trump has pledged to shut down the program.

Healthcare: Few states gave the Affordable Care Act, which Trump and congressional Republicans pledge to repeal, support as full-throated as California. The state has enrolled about 1.4 million people in Obamacare health plans via its statewide individual insurance exchange, Covered California, and added about 3 million low-income residents to Medicaid rolls via the law’s Medicaid expansion, the cost of which has been 100% paid by the federal government.

It’s doubtful that this record could be maintained if Trump and congressional Republicans repeal the ACA. Repeal would eliminate the federal tax credits that reduce premiums on Covered California plans and other costs for about 90% of enrollees. That would drive many of them off coverage. The state would surely be unable to make up those subsidies. California would also suffer from the loss of the ACA’s consumer protection elements, including a ban on exclusions for preexisting conditions and on annual or lifetime benefit limits. A study published last June by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation forecast that without the ACA, the ranks of the uninsured in California would soar by 2021 to 7.5 million, compared with only 3.4 million if the ACA remains in place.

Among the dangers in the GOP plans is uncertainty. The party has promised to “replace” the ACA with something that works better, yet has never coalesced around an alternative in more than six years of trying. But doubts that Covered California and other ACA marketplaces will eventually stabilize could drive more big insurers out of the market and force prices higher.

The prospects of disastrous tampering with healthcare were heightened Monday with Trump’s nomination of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as secretary of Health and Human Services. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, is a sworn enemy of the Affordable Care Act. He’s the author of an alternative law that could throw older and sicker patients out of the insurance pool and make insurance all but unaffordable for women of child-bearing age. The Price plan would repeal Obamacare and replace it with something resembling the pre-2010 individual insurance market, when overpriced, low-benefit plans were the norm for anyone except young, healthy males.

Republican proposals to convert Medicaid to a block-granted program—almost certainly a prelude to cutting the federal share of its budget—could pose a particular problem for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. In his district, which largely spans Kern and Tulare counties, roughly half of all residents are enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. Efforts to trim the program would have a direct effect on them.

Gun control and marijuana: Voters on election day flouted federal policy in both areas. Proposition 63 mandates background checks for ammunition sales and outlaws high-capacity ammo magazines. Proposition 64 legalizes marijuana.

Trump established himself as an ally of the National Rifle Assn. during the campaign, but White House policy may not be the biggest problem for the state’s firearms policy: the courts would be. In rulings in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court extended the reach of the 2nd Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms. Within a day of the election, the NRA was talking about challenging Proposition 63 and related state laws before the courts.

Trump hasn’t expressed strong objections to the legalization of marijuana, but as the biggest state to legalize pot, California could find itself in the crosshairs of revived anti-marijuana enforcement by his administration. Obama’s Justice Department took an indulgent approach to the wave of state legalizations of the drug, declaring in 2013 that although it was still illegal under federal law, its prosecutors would focus chiefly on preventing sales to minors and to keeping profits out of the hands of criminal gangs.

But Trump’s attorney general-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), stated in April that “marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.” One anti-pot activist described him to the Washington Post as “by far the single most outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization in the U.S. Senate.” How he plans to enforce federal law in a legalization state as big as California is still a mystery.

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