The Golden State's extreme makeover

California isn't working any more. It's time to think about dramatic ideas for change
The "State of Jefferson" seal

California's an amazing place, a state with a history of starting trends that sweep across the nation. It has crowded cities and spectacular wilderness, agriculture and high-tech industries, 840 miles of coast, 163,000 square miles of land and 36 million people.

And it's proving almost impossible to manage.

The governor and the Legislature can't solve a catastrophic budget deficit. More than two-thirds of the state's residents have lost faith in both branches of government. As the political problems get worse and worse, the most influential lawmaking that goes on tends to come from inflexible, often flawed ballot initiatives run and funded by wealthy interests. A May 14, 2009 story in The Economist summed it up with the headline, "California: the ungovernable state."

The collapse of this year's budget deal at the ballot on May 19 is just the latest example of the state's structural failure. And across the spectrum, from the left to the right, from the farmers in the Central Valley to the liberals on the coast, Californians are starting to realize that something major, something dramatic and profound, has to be done.

Over the past few months, a wide range of proposals have cropped up, including a call for a new Constitutional convention and a radical restructuring of the state Legislature. And the prospect of 60 million people eventually living in this dysfunctional political nightmare has led even relatively moderate thinkers to consider the most intriguing, and problematic, option of all: should we break up the state of California?

Same-sex marriage advocates were dragged on an emotional roller-coaster ride in mid-May when a false report surfaced declaring that the Supreme Court had overturned Proposition 8. A flurry of excitement whirled through cyberspace — only to come crashing down when it was revealed to be a gaffe originating with some Twitter user who'd read an out-of-date news report. In fact, on May 26, the Supreme Court upheld Prop. 8.

To many, the tease served as a sour reminder that the ballot measure that struck down same-sex marriage and sent emotional shockwaves throughout the Bay Area, had prevailed in the November 2008 statewide election — despite an overwhelming defeat in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, some 250 miles from the Bay Area, emotions are still running high over the passage of a different ballot measure, which some Central Valley farmers have come to regard as not merely a sore subject but as the last straw. Organizing under the banner Citizens for Saving California Farming Industries, they've summed up Proposition 2 — which requires farm animals to be penned in larger spaces — as "allowing the mass numbers of farm-uneducated city dwellers to dictate farm policy." The group fears that the ramifications will be an out-migration of farmers at a time when agriculture is already facing severe economic woes. Before Prop. 2 becomes effective in 2015, they hope to place a measure on the ballot to cleave California in two — so that, as dairy farmer and Citizens for Saving California Farming Industries board member Paul Olson puts it, "We can do our thing, and you guys can do yours." 359-twocalis.jpg

And while the move comes from the conservative side of the state, that's a sentiment a lot of liberals could live with.

Conservative Central Valley farmers and LGBT communities in San Francisco may as well inhabit different planets, yet they mutually contribute to one another's frustration with state law. Governing California means acting in the interests of more than 36 million individuals, a population surpassing that of Texas — the nation's second-largest state — by more than 12 million. By 2050, the state's population is projected to balloon to 60 million, according to the California Department of Finance.

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