What voters need to know about San Bernardino County’s secession measure

San Bernardino County’s Measure EE isn’t about seceding from California, backers of the initiative say.

Or at least, it’s not just about secession.

“I’m going to continue to say this every time I talk to anyone and I’m interviewed: (California) is the best state of the union,” said Jeff Burum, the Rancho Cucamonga real estate developer who first introduced the idea that turned into Measure EE on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“I would never willfully want to leave this state,” Burum continued. “But I can tell you this, if you’re just going to continue to abuse me and abuse us, sometimes you don’t have a choice but to stand up for yourself.”

Burum and others, such as Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman, say Measure EE is about political and economic fairness for the largest county in the United States and one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

“Do you want to spend our taxpayer dollars to do a study of what we are, or are not getting, as a county, and then fight for that, in a way we haven’t done before?” Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman asked his fellow board members at their Aug. 3 meeting.

At the meeting, the board unanimously approved putting Measure EE on the Nov. 8 ballot as an advisory measure: “Do the people of San Bernardino County want San Bernardino County elected representatives to study and advocate for all options to obtain the county’s fair share of State funding up to and including secession from the State of California?”

The word “secession” is included as an ultimatum, Burum said.

“I’ll be candid: I wanted the word in there,” he added. “Because it needed to provoke people. It needed to provoke intellectual debate on the issue.”

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What is fair?

It’s difficult to prove or disprove whether San Bernardino County is getting its “fair share.” Multiple experts say there are just too many ways government money comes into and flows out of the county’s economy.

Supporters of Measure EE haven’t been specific about what they consider to be the county’s fair share of state and federal funding, but county officials used data from the California controller to draft a document listing how much money each of the state’s 56 counties get, per capita, from the state and federal governments. According to those figures, San Bernardino County ranks 36th, getting a total of $1,071 per person from the state and federal government, combined. That puts it behind Los Angeles County, which is ranked 28th, but ahead of wealthy counties like Sonoma (45th), Santa Barbara (52nd) and Orange (55th) counties.

The top 10 counties on the document — Alpine, Sierra, Trinity, Modoc, Mariposa, Del Norte, Plumas, Glenn, Inyo and Lassen — are mostly rural, with average to low per capita incomes. Their low populations appear to skew the analysis in their favor over wealthier, more powerful counties with much higher per capita incomes, like Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clarita, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, none of which ranked better than 33rd on the list compiled by San Bernardino County staff.

But Burum isn’t wrong about San Bernardino County getting political short shrift in Sacramento, according to Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban studies at Chapman University. Parts of the state interested in blue collar manufacturing and logistics jobs have their voices drowned out by wealthier areas of the state politically and economically dominated by white collar industries.

GRAPHIC: Could San Bernardino County become a state?

“The priorities of the Inland Empire and Central Valley are just not taken seriously,” Kotkin said.

Rural, agricultural Tulare County in the Central Valley, for example, ranks 31st on the chart prepared by San Bernardino County staff.

According to Kotkin, the state is politically dominated by rich coastal communities that pursue a vision of California that prioritizes the needs of those communities, not the needs of the inland regions.

The argument that the state Legislature does not send San Bernardino County its fair share in revenue and services drew a sharp rebuke from some of the county’s legislative representatives in August. State Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-Colton, state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, and Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, wrote an Aug. 10 letter to the board expressing their displeasure over the idea.

“We are shocked with the reasoning behind this initiative, concerned about the cost to taxpayers to essentially ask local officials to do their jobs, and disappointed in the narrative being created regarding our community,” the letter reads in part.

Burum scoffed at the legislators’ response.

“Connie and Eloise, if they were doing a good job, there probably wouldn’t be the issues we’re talking about today,” he said.

Secession talk isn’t new

Burum’s argument is a familiar one for San Fernando Valley voters, who heard similar concerns during their failed attempt to leave Los Angeles County in 2002.

“The valley was also making a fair share argument,” said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge who studied secession closely.

Proponents of the San Fernando Valley secession movement had a hard time putting credible numbers to their gut feeling they were being treated unfairly.

“The numbers that were produced were very politicized,” Hogen-Esch said. “The movement hired some Cal State Northridge professors who produced a very criticized study that said the valley wasn’t getting their fair share.”

In San Bernardino County, voters for now are being asked to provide guidance on efforts to secure the county’s fair share of funds.

Should voters approve Measure EE on Nov. 8, and the Board of Supervisors concludes that secession, rather than lawsuits or other measures, is the only way to secure more funds, the county would have to get the approval of legislators Burum says already don’t take the issue seriously.

Both the state Legislature and Congress would have to vote to approve San Bernardino County striking out on its own. Even merging with Nevada or Arizona would require legislative approval.

“To paraphrase Moses, I don’t think they’re going to let your people go,” Kotkin said.

If the county’s secession movement succeeded, the new state — which Burum has suggested could be named “Empire” — would be the first since Hawaii was established in 1959. And it would be the first carved out of another state since West Virginia left Virginia in 1863 over Appalachian residents’ opposition to slavery.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, San Bernardino County had 2.1 million residents in 2021. That’s about the population of New Mexico. And it’s more than the populations of Nebraska, Idaho, West Virginia, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont or Wyoming.

Area-wise, San Bernardino County is the largest county in the United States. It’s physically larger than nine states, including Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined.

San Bernardino and Riverside counties combined were the fifth-fastest growing metro area in the 2020 census. In contrast, Los Angeles and Orange counties combined had the nation’s second-worst population decline.

Paul Preston, founder of New California State, which advocates splitting California into two states — the urban cores of the Bay Area, Los Angeles basin and Sacramento in one, and everyone else in the other — said Burum isn’t alone in wanting to secede.

“The public does want to separate from Sacramento,” Preston said. “There’s no question about that. That’s statewide.”

Since California became a state in 1850, there have been at least 220 attempts to subdivide it, according to the California State Library.

Since 1941, far northern California counties have repeatedly toyed with splitting away from California and joining with rural southern Oregon counties to form the proposed state of Jefferson. Bills to divide the state into either two or three were introduced in the state Legislature in the 1960s and 1990s. In the 21st century, there have been proposals to split California into three, four or six smaller states. And in 2011, former Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone wanted to cluster Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, San Diego, Orange, Kings, Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa and Mono counties into a new “South California.”

More on San Bernardino County secession

Secession drive changed San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles
San Bernardino County supervisors urged to secede from California
San Bernardino County secession measure advances to November 2022 ballot
San Bernardino County sheriff, DA weigh in on ‘fair share’ measure
Column: Support for San Bernardino County secession ‘overwhelming,’ backer says
State legislators blast San Bernardino County secession measure
Secession backer says poll shows majority of San Bernardino County voters support the move

Too soon to talk statehood?

If San Bernardino County did succeed where so many others failed, there would be a huge government infrastructure to set up — the office of governor, a state legislature, a state supreme court, departments of motor vehicles, transportation and education, two new U.S. Senate seats and much more.

Burum thinks it’s too soon to talk about any of that.

“You get people that want to talk about secession, they start talking about National Guard and, you know, is it really practical and that’s not being voted on now,” he said. “Right now, it’s really about are we getting our fair share. And if we’re not, how do we get it?”

Even if San Bernardino County does manage to become its own state, Hogen-Esch says the arguments over fairness would continue.

“Ninety percent of it is going to be subsidized by the people in the western end of the county. There’s no end of it,” he said. “That’s what it means to be part of a political community: Some part of it is going to be subsidized by others.”

Burum doesn’t regret raising the specter of secession, both in his original comments and now in Measure EE. But he doesn’t think it’s had the intended effect.

“I think it’s an ignitable word,” he said. “I certainly would have hoped that would have sparked people in Sacramento to take us more seriously. I think it’s done the reverse. I think they’ve not taken us seriously at all. They don’t seem to have cared anything about our needs.”

Burum has put his money where his mouth is on the issue. According to campaign finance documents filed on Sept. 29, The People United for Fairness in support of Measure D & EE campaign committee has raised $77,400 since the beginning of the year, $50,000 of it from Burum. (Measure D is a bill to reset county supervisors’ term limits to three terms and makes it harder for them to put new taxes on future ballots.)

Burum believes voters will see things his way on Nov. 8.

“How can you not vote for it if you know what it’s about?”