Six-states measure would make immediate changes even without congressional sign-off

jmiller@sacbee.comMay 2, 2014 

No one gives Tim Draper’s move to chop California into six states much of a chance in Congress, which would have the final say.

But if California voters go along with Draper’s “Fix It With Six” ballot measure, the Golden State still would be on its way to a major government overhaul. The proposal allows a new layer of government comprising counties in the would-be states, even if Congress never goes for Draper’s idea.

“We won’t have to wait for the federal government to anoint six states. It can get started right away. These counties will be able to self-organize into these regions, states-to-be,” said Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

The measure’s Section Four would change the California Constitution to give charter counties more autonomy from state law on matters such as taxes and development. Counties could group together into regional governments, and proponents say the language would allow the new regional governments to ignore future state laws if there isn’t the money to pay for them.

The average resident might not notice much change, said Tom Hiltachk, a Sacramento political attorney who helped write the measure. But it could make a big difference with county budgets and in tempering what Hiltachk called “a pretty activist Legislature” content to pass laws regardless of their impact on local treasuries.

The measure would have prevented some of the more than $1.5 billion debt the state owes to local governments for things it’s told them to do – ranging from disciplining peace officers to dictating the number of days local animal shelters have to hold stray pets before euthanizing them.

If the measure passes, Hiltachk predicted that bill-happy lawmakers would start asking themselves, “Is this something we still want to do? If so, we have to pay for it.”

The language would offer counties more ways to raise money, said Peter Detwiler, a former legislative staff member and an instructor at Sacramento State’s Department of Public Policy and Administration. Officials in oil-rich Kern County, for example, could ask voters to approve an oil-severance tax – a proposal that has repeatedly failed at the Capitol. Or Santa Clara and San Mateo counties could adopt home-rule charters, enter into a regional compact, and decide to levy a 1 percent excise tax on software produced there.

Giving counties power over municipal affairs “is a really big deal in local government-land,” Detwiler said. “Even if the rest of the initiative goes down in flames, you’re still going to get this.”

Counties could join together to deal with common problems, such as the drought. Some of the groupings could create new regional governments, while others may not, Hiltachk said.

Opponents with the OneCalifornia committee have focused their attacks on the prospect of six new states, saying Draper’s proposal hurts California’s image.

Jean Hurst of the California State Association of Counties said she is still trying to figure out what the regional government provision might entail. A worst-case scenario is that it would upend county finances and potentially affect services to residents.

All 58 counties, including the 14 existing charter counties, would have to adopt charters specifically giving them more local authority. Doing that would require months of public hearings and elections in each county.

“For the most part we’re starting from scratch. It would take a significant expenditure of resources just to put it on the ballot,” Hurst said.

“I worry how it all shakes out,” she added. “People talk about having a constitutional convention. We went through one – but it would be nothing compared to this, near as I can tell.”

There already are region- or county-based councils of governments made up of local elected officials that coordinate transportation policy, such as the Southern California Association of Governments and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. There also are air-quality, water and other special districts that cross county lines.

There periodically have been pushes to expand regional approaches to government. In 2000, then-Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg created a speaker’s commission on regional government. In 2008, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 375, a law meant to encourage regional collaboration on land use to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Daniel A. Mazmanian, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of new initiatives at USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities, said other candidates for regional approaches would be communications, economic development and elections.

“They’re inherently regional, but they are not a level of government,” Mazmanian said.

For his part, Draper has invested almost $3 million into his dream, state filings show. Through March 31, the campaign had spent more than $1.3 million on gathering the 807,615 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Time is running out. The campaign’s signature-collecting deadline isn’t until mid-July, but the secretary of state’s office says initiative campaigns already should be turning in signatures if they want to ensure a spot on the November ballot. Draper said he will announce shortly whether his measure will aim to qualify for this year’s ballot or hold off until November 2016.

What his measure’s critics fail to understand, Draper said, is that the interests of 38 million Californians cannot be served by just one state government. Making six new states would yield “invigorated thought,” he said.

“It’s kind of a fun exercise to think about, ‘What might my state look like?’ ” he said. “People think, ‘Oh boy, it could really be improved.’ 

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.

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