‘Time for us to stand up’: a California county’s fight to secede from the state

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters

Come November, San Bernardino county residents will vote to elect school board members, water officials and state representatives – and whether they want the county to look at breaking away from California.

The expansive county east of Los Angeles, home to 2 million people and some of the state’s beloved Joshua trees, isn’t getting the resources it needs to support its residents, county officials argue. This week the board of supervisors moved to add a measure on the November ballot asking residents if they want the county “to study all options to obtain its fair share of state and federal resources, up to and including secession”.

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“People pay high taxes and they do not believe their taxes are coming back to their neighborhoods to address the issues they care about,” Supervisor Janice Rutherford said in a meeting earlier this month. “And there is nothing crazy about being angry about those things.”

With its ballot measure, San Bernardino county joins a long tradition in California politics in which local grievances and discontent turn to talk of leaving the state entirely. Such sentiments are often associated with the other end of the state – far northern California has for decades been home to a thriving breakaway movement advocating for secession from the Golden State’s liberal government.

“Proposals like this have a long history in California, going back to the State of Jefferson idea in the 1940s, and the 1859 attempt to request congressional approval to divide the state in two,” said David A Carrillo, the executive director of Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center.

People pay high taxes and they do not believe their taxes are coming back to their neighborhoods ...

Supervisor Janice Rutherford

Leaving California and forming a new state would require approval from the state legislature and Congress, a virtually impossible effort, experts such as Carrillo warn.

Still, officials and secession supporters have vowed to forge ahead with the measure, characterizing it as an opportunity for the county to “stand up” to the state.

“I don’t care if people think we can secede or not. That was never the point of this,” Jeff Burum, the local real estate developer who proposed the idea to officials earlier this summer, told the San Bernardino Sun. “It’s time for us to stand up and get our fair share.”

Both the county sheriff and the district attorney have voiced support for the measure, and told the supervisors at a meeting this week that the state isn’t pulling its weight and has failed its responsibility to invest in the prisons, state hospitals and courthouses they say are necessary to keep up with one of America’s fastest-growing metro areas.

A cargo train
Leaving California and forming a new state would require approval from the state legislature and Congress, a virtually impossible effort. Photograph: Matt Gush/Alamy

“The issue isn’t resources have been neglected, it’s how long they’ve been neglected,” said Jason Anderson, the county DA. “Counties don’t build courthouses. States build courthouses.”

San Bernardino county is larger than nine states and has an $8.4bn budget, a speaker pointed out at a board of supervisors meeting. But the county ranks 36th out of 56 counties for per-capita revenue received from the state and federal governments, according to a data analysis from local officials.

The region is entitled to more resources to accommodate its growing population, Acquanetta Warren, the mayor of Fontana, told the board of supervisors this week.

“We need our state legislators to look at the return they are supposed to deliver to the people they serve,” she said. “We are one of the fastest-growing regions and it’s time to pay attention to that … We don’t have beaches, we don’t have all the skyscrapers but what we have is a family. We are a family-oriented county.”

a trail in Joshua tree national park
San Bernardino county is larger than nine states and has the second largest jail system in California. Photograph: Gerry Matthews/Alamy

The move has drawn criticism from state lawmakers, who deemed it a waste of taxpayer dollars and say they have brought millions of dollars to the region. “Public resources, including staff time being paid for with taxpayer dollars, are being used to not only draft this item but to put it on the ballot in November,” legislators wrote in a letter, according to the Sun, adding that such an effort is unlikely.

Political experts echo that assessment, arguing that talk of secession comes up often in California politics and receives widespread media coverage but has almost no chance of moving forward.

“There’s no real path for this. California’s legislature would need to ask Congress for permission to make San Bernardino a new state, and the new State of San Bernardino needs a federal constitutional amendment to leave the union. None of that is happening,” Carrillo said.

The issue isn’t resources have been neglected, it’s how long they’ve been neglected

Jason Anderson

Such efforts have occurred since shortly after California joined the union, Carrillo pointed out.

“Although the details change, every time proposals to subdivide California come up the motivation and intention sound the same: local political dissatisfaction leads a group to threaten to go their own way. But these stunts are less about succeeding and more about grabbing headlines.”

In San Bernardino, the local officials behind the measure argue that it’s not about secession, but instead gathering data so the county can effectively fight for its fair share of resources. “The secession last-resort is an expression of our resolve, an illustration of the seriousness of the matter, and an acknowledgment of the deep concern of our residents and the community leaders who have spoken out,” Supervisor Curt Hagman said, according to the Sun.

The Associated Press contributed to this report