Newcomers to California barely get their bags unpacked when someone, somewhere, starts griping about how the state is so big or its citizens so disagreeable that we ought to just crack it up into smaller pieces and go our own separate ways.
Which brings us to the budget fight of the spring of 2011.
The current incarnation of the "we can't get along" saga was sparked, not surprisingly, by the budget crisis -- more precisely, about how to resolve the political standoff over spending cuts and taxes.
On Tuesday, Treasurer Bill Lockyer suggested in a chat with Bay Area journalists that perhaps legislative districts whose GOP representatives oppose additional tax dollars for government spending should bear the brunt of cuts themselves.
"The people who want less government ought to be at the front of that line to get less government," said Lockyer as quoted as saying.
Lockyer is not the first Democrat to opine on the subject this year, but is the first prominent Dem to do so publicly. And that, unsurprisingly, has lighted a blaze of back-and-forth banter on the subject for the better part of this week.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, asked by a reporter to comment after an unrelated speech to the Sacramento Press Club on Wednesday, basically rejected the idea (wouldn't be fair to programs that serve needy kids, he said, which would probably keep education and social services off limits and thus be the lion's share of the cuts). But he left the door ajar just far enough for the press and GOP critics to run with it.
"When it comes to basic services, convenience services" the Senate leader said, "you know, I have an open mind."
GOP blogger Jon Fleischman then penned a column that said Republican resolve would only strengthen if district-by-district cuts came along. And some went even further; Sacramento talk show host Eric Hogue began tweeting about Dems wanting 58 separate provinces, later putting it this way:
Better idea for Steinberg: Each district keeps its own tax revenue, no more Placer County paying for SF County government; deal?
Ah... the issue of splitting things up. Hello, old friend.While talk of carving up the Golden State is occasionally linked these days to discussions that California has become "ungovernable," the idea stretches much farther back into the history books. My favorite (perhaps because I wrote about it as a graduate journalism student eons ago) was the 1941 quest by northern California and southern Oregon counties to secede from their respective states and create a 51st state known as Jefferson. Their effort culminated in a big celebration on December 4, 1941 and drew newsreel reporters to chronicle the moment. But by the time those images were processed and ready to be blast to the nation... well, bigger news came about. Jefferson, these days, is often called a "state of mind" up in the north country of California.
In the early 1990s, then Republican assemblymember Stan Statham authored bills to make either two or three separate states -- with the latter creating a North, Central, and South California. While getting lots of headlines, the idea was a non-starter legislatively and, later, as an advisory ballot measure. In 2009, another ex-GOP assemblymember, Bill Maze, unsuccessfully pushed an initiative to split California into inland and coastal states (though the "red" California would've gotten to keep San Diego, natch). In all, historians say there have been more than two dozen formal contemplations of cutting the state up.
Of course, that's not quite the topic this time around; but regional differences and fights are a key element of the recent budget crisis. Last August, my colleague Scott Shafer reported on data that showed Democratic areas often send tax dollars, via services, to Republican areas. (One graphic of the data is here.)
And the inherent conflict -- one that's often not just about political party -- is well known by the guy in the corner office. In fact, the best quip on the subject may be the one Governor Jerry Brown made before he won a third term, in a chat with reporters at last year's state Democratic party convention.
"It works much easier if the Bakersfieldians decide their own issues and the San Franciscans also decide theirs," said Brown. "If I could quote the papal principle of subsidiarity, you want the smallest institution to deal with the problem that can most competently handle it."
This week's chatter likely doesn't move the ball down the field towards an omnibus budget deal in 2011. But it does remind us that California's rich diversity has both upsides... and downsides.