Feeling alienated, voters in far Northern California weigh secession, creating 51st state

Juliet Williams / The Associated Press
May 28, 2014 11:55 AM

Tom Knorr, chairman of the Measure A campaign in Tehama County, holds a State of Jefferson flag as he poses for photographs at his ranch house in Corning, Calif., Tuesday, May 27, 2014. The idea of forming their own state has been a topic among local secession dreamers for more than a century in California’s largely rural, agrarian and politically conservative far northern counties. Residents in two counties, Del Norte and Tehama, will decide June 3, 2014, on an advisory measure that asks each county’s board of supervisors to join a wider effort to form a 51st state named Jefferson. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Residents of California's largely agrarian and politically conservative far northern counties, feeling out of sync with their counterparts in major urban areas, are contemplating breaking away to become America's 51st state.

Voters in two counties will have a chance to voice that sentiment next week.

Del Norte and Tehama counties, with a combined population of about 91,000, will hold a June 3 vote on an advisory measure that asks each county's board of supervisors to join a wider effort to form a state named Jefferson.

The efforts are merely advisory, encouraging local officials to further study the idea. The steps involved in trying to become the country's 51st state are steep, first requiring approval from the state Legislature, then from Congress. The last state created through secession was West Virginia, which broke away from Virginia during the Civil War and became the 35th state in 1863. Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

Elected officials in four California counties have already voted to join the movement. Supervisors in a fifth county will vote June 10, while local bodies in other northern counties are awaiting the June 3 ballot results before deciding what to do.

The counties that could opt into California's movement — as many as 16, according to supporters — make up more than a quarter of the state's land mass but only a small portion of its population.

Aaron Funk, a secession supporter in Del Norte County, noted that 11 northern counties share just one senator in California's Legislature, compared to 20 for the greater Los Angeles area and 10 for the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Essentially, we have no representation whatsoever," he said.

The terrain of the seven counties that have voted or will this month spans some of California's most majestic coastal scenery to agriculture-dominated valleys, Mount Shasta and Redwood National Park. Some of its residents are also are among the state's poorest, and the population is far different from California as a whole.

While the state has no racial majority and Hispanics make up the largest ethnic group, residents in the far northern counties are overwhelmingly white.

Because the exact makeup of the proposed state of Jefferson is still unknown, it is hard to assess the potential economic impact. The state Department of Finance does not have a county-by-county comparison of what each contributes in state revenue versus what it receives.

But the loss of millions of dollars for everything from infrastructure to schools is among the biggest worries of residents who oppose the secession movement. The Del Norte County Board of Education, which receives 90 per cent of its funding, or $32 million, from the state, voted to oppose the local initiative, known as Measure A.

If it passes, Kevin Hendrick worries that local officials will spend years studying how to create a new state rather than tackling concrete problems such as fixing a crumbling highway that is in danger of falling into the ocean.

"It's a lot of broad promises about things being better and representation being better," said Hendrick, who is leading the opposition in Del Norte. "But the more they talk, the less clear it becomes about how that's actually going to happen."

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