In January, I wrote “What a model ‘Calexit’ initiative looks like,” which not only detailed all the problems with Yes California’s “independence plebiscite” initiative, but explained, with actual legal code, how to fix them.
Yes California essentially folded in April, pulling their initiative. Largely as a result of writing this article, I was able to work with the California Freedom Coalition on writing a new initiative, which we filed on May 19, 2017.
Thanks to a collaborative effort between CFC Chief Strategist Tim Vollmer, myself, and several other people who read and made comments (including the Chair and Vice Chair of the California National Party), we were able to draft something way better than either Yes California’s or my model initiative.
Focusing on what’s important
The article’s title calls this a “Calexit” initiative, and yes, this initiative wouldstart a process that could eventually lead to California becoming an independent country, if we could get Congress to agree to a deal, and if a supermajority of the state legislature ratified the deal as a (California) constitutional revision, and if the voters passed it.
But what this initiative would definitely do is get more autonomy for California. That’s what really matters.
Check out the initiative’s Statement of Purpose, my favorite part of the whole initiative (and entirely thanks to Tim Vollmer):
…to put California on the path towards becoming a fully-functioning sovereign and autonomous nation, whether within continued association with the United States of America, or as an independent country.
Get it? It’s not about turning our backs on America; it’s that America would be a much more attractive country for Californians to live in if it stopped telling us what to do about drug policy, education, health care, and the environment, stopped harassing our undocumented residents, and let us keep more of our tax dollars in-state.
If we can have that and stay in America, great. If not, we know we’re fully capable of being the world’s most awesome medium-sized country, because that’s practically what we’re doing already. America, whatever.
Cold, hard facts
Like most initiatives, this one starts with a Findings and Declarations section making the case for its passage. Fellow proponent Cindy Sheehan referred to it in an article as the “California Declaration of Independence,” probably because of its statesmanlike language.
However, unlike with the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the goal here was not so much to channel anger about “Tyranny” (*cough* slave-owners*cough*) as to deliver cold, hard facts. Such as:
- 45% of California land is property of the federal government, for no good reason
- America costs California taxpayers, conservatively, $100 billion a year between subsidies to other states and overpaying for defense.
- Californians have been subsidizing other states for at least the last 20 years. Essentially, there are no “federal dollars” spent in California, just our own tax dollars handed back with strings attached.
- When state and federal spending in California are taken together, only about a third of that is administered by the federal government in any meaningful way. In other words, California can obviously govern itself because we’re more than halfway there already.
- Californians receive one-sixth as much representation in the U.S. Senate as the average American.
- California’s electoral votes haven’t swung a presidential election since 1916 (you owe us, Woody!)
- Florida isn’t really a swing state, it’s just that they use the criminal justice system to keep 10% of their adult citizens from voting.
Yeah, it stinks. I don’t like it either.
Focusing on what we have the power to change
I’m not going to re-hash the entire Findings and Declarations section because you can just read it, but I do want to stress one point:
Californians have little power to fix America (in fact, less than residents of any other state), but as the nation’s largest, wealthiest, and best-lawyered state, California does have enough leverage to demand that the federal government let us keep more of our own tax dollars and govern ourselves.
Putting another way, fixing America is Plan A, but Plan A is almost entirely in the hands of Americans who live in small states. Making American politics largely irrelevant to Californians is Plan B, and that’s what our initiative does.
Unlike Plan A, Plan B is blatantly realistic, and it’s something Californians have plenty of power to do something about.
A blatantly realistic strategy
How are we going to get there? A more intentional version of what we’re doing already. Here’s what the initiative says:
It is the intent of the People of the State of California that California become a fully-functioning sovereign and autonomous nation, whether within continued association with the United States of America or as an independent country, peacefully through negotiation with the federal government of the United States.
The Governor shall lead these negotiations… to continually gain greater autonomy from the federal government for California’s State and local governments, and for its People.
We know the Governor can legally negotiate with the U.S. because our current Governor, Jerry Brown, is doing it already. For example, he successfully negotiated for funding for Caltrain and the Oroville Dam, and also requested that the Trump administration transfer environmental oversight reviews of High Speed Rail to the State of California.
Why not transfer all environmental review to the state? (We are the land of CEQA; environmental review is our speciality.) Why not just ask for federal transit or water funding to be block-granted to the State of California, since it’s California taxpayers’ money to begin with?
What prevents Governor Brown from making these sorts of asks is that when he goes to Washington, he doesn’t have a ton of backup; he’s basically just acting in his capacity as an eminently reasonable dude.
He also doesn’t have a mandate; while California voters probably would like these things, who knows if it’s a priority? For all he knows, we just want him to focus on running the state while we wait and hope for a less awful federal government.
Passing this initiative would create that mandate, to negotiate for real permanent autonomy backed by laws and/or contracts and not just executive branch waivers. And it would create a structure that would give the Governor real negotiating power.
Giving the Governor backup
One way it does this is by having the Governor work with our Congressional delegation on a regular basis:
The governor shall regularly coordinate with California’s Congressional delegation regarding these negotiations.
This fixes one of the problems I failed to solve with the model initiative: state constitutions can’t actually tell federal elected officials to do anything. But the Governor is a state official; we can certainly tell him (or her, hopefully, eventually) what to do.
It also instructs all our elected officials to help maximize our leverage:
The People of the State of California call upon our state and federal elected officials… to support California in negotiations with the federal government, and to maximize its leverage in these negotiations.
This is explicitly advisory (you can’t take anyone to court over it, which is good), but like all the advisory language in the initiative, it’s backed by a voter mandate.
Finally, the initiative allows the state government to add additional structure to the negotiation process as needed:
Other details of these negotiations may be provided by statute.
Why so open-ended? Based on the excellent paper “How Do Peaceful Secessions Happen,” we’d probably want a small, bipartisan committee, composed, say, of majority and minority party leaders from both houses of the legislature and our House delegation.
But our state politicians are politically savvy enough to figure that out on our own, and if you want someone to negotiate on your behalf, you don’t tie their hands.
You and what leverage?
Do we really have that kind of leverage?
You’ve probably noticed California politicians saying things like “as goes California, so goes the nation,” and “California must lead, not secede.” Think about what that implies: even with our nerfed voting rights and the fact that most Americans dislike us, we’ll be able to remake America in California’s image, if only we try hard enough. (But only if we give up crazy fantasies like California being able to manage its own affairs; waste one more minute on talk of secession and America is dooooooooomed.)
Whether California can save America is, well, debatable, but if we really have this kind of power, then we certainly we have the power to get America to leave us alone. Right?
Here are just a handful of ways California holds leverage over the United States:
- 12% of the seats in the House of Representatives. House seats in other states are so gerrymandered that it’s hard to call this representation, but it is tremendous power if our delegation works together. Need California votes to re-open the government or raise the debt ceiling? Sure, just transfer some National Forest land to the State, or add a rider instructing the federal government to instruct state marijuana laws. Let’s work it out.
- state and local law enforcement. In theory, the federal government has clear and tremendous power to enforce immigration laws. In practice, without the support of state and local law enforcement (which we can revoke with bills like SB 54 and AB 1578), federal law enforcement falls flat in its face.
- military recruiting. California has more potential recruits than any other state, and joining the military is voluntary. California could give all the folks who are just joining for pride and economic opportunities a better alternative if we wanted to.
- tax withholdings. State and local governments are huge employers that, like any employer, collect tax dollars from their employees for the federal government. We can’t legally withhold this money, but we could probably be a bit slower or more litigious about it; no need to make interest-free loans to a federal government that apparently hates us.
- lawsuits. Yeah, we’ve got tons of lawyers and we’re not shy about using them. Scientists too.
- legitimacy. Nothing forces our state government to fly the American flag, or California politicians to say “God Bless America” (try “I Love You, California”), or Californians to call America a democracy. America can take Californians’ tax dollars, but it’s up to us whether we give it our hearts.
Put another way, many Americans already view California as a huge nuisance. Think what we could be if we really put our minds to it.
Sealing the deal
One way these negotiations could shake out is that California eventually carves out enough autonomy for itself that America becomes a halfway-decent deal for California again. We don’t get fair representation in the Senate, you don’t tell us what to do, it’s all good.
However this might not last forever. It’s not so much about how much Californians want independence (since we can’t just up and secede unilaterally) as that America might eventually get sick of a of California that constantly grinds out concessions of autonomy and lawyers up every time the federal government tries to take back any little bit of control. At some point, the feds might say, look California, you either act like part of this country, or you’re on your own.
At that point, could the United States pass a constitutional amendment kicking us out? Almost certainly not, as that would deprive California of “its equal suffrage in the Senate… without its consent”. (Now that’s irony.)
Which would mean California and America would have to make a deal. Not a little deal for more autonomy in one area, but a big deal, outlining what to do about everything from splitting up the national debt, to the military, to water from the Colorado river, to how best to split up the Social Security system.
You’ll get to vote on it
Our initiative authorizes the Governor to hammer out terms of such a deal, but importantly, not the power to put it into effect:
to negotiate the terms of a final settlement allowing California to become a fully-functioning sovereign and autonomous nation, not to take effect until adopted by the voters as a revision to this Constitution.
Which means if we get to the point where California and the U.S. agree that splitting up is better than the alternative, you, the California voter, are going to get to see the terms of the deal, and vote them up or down. This is, after all, California.
I think this directly answers some of the big worries Californians have. For example:
What would happen to America if California’s net 25 Democratic seats in the House went away? Wait until the right time, or until Texas is going to leave too.
What about the military? We don’t even have to become a fully independent country; a Compact of Free Association, which the United States already has with three other countries, would make military protection a non-issue (just stop charging Californians $72 billion a year for it, okay?).
Stacking the deck in California’s favor
What else has to happen for a deal like this to take effect?
On the U.S. side of things, we’d need consent of Congress and the President as (not a Constitutional amendment? Almost certainly not, and here’s why).
On the California side, we’d need to pass a revision (not just an amendment) to the California Constitution. This would mean in addition to gaining voter approval, it would first need the support of two-thirds of each house of California’s legislature.
Something to note here is that all the structural factors are in California’s favor. Californians would care quite a lot about the specific terms of any deal, whereas Americans would have better things to worry about than how to get an annoying 12% of the country to go away. On the Congress side of things, the process is simple, whereas on the California side, it’s complex and unpredictable (pesky voters).
This means is that we can probably negotiate a very, very good deal. California assuming a share of the national debt based on population? What, you know we already paid most of that off subsidizing other states. Cutting our water allocation from the Colorado? Sorry, voters in LA and San Diego would never go for that. It’s cool, we’re good, take your time. America, whatever.
Personally, I think California would make an awesome country. But if you want independence too, rather than rushing toward it at all costs, let’s focus on getting back more control over our own laws and our own tax dollars, and see if we can make America beg us to leave.
Preparing for independence
The other reason to take our time is that however much of a “nation-state” California is, California was never really designed to operate as an independent country. Our arcane rules about budgeting and taxation would almost certainly trip us up, and there’s not really very solid protection of basic rights from the initiative system (case in point: Prop 8).
If you’re imagining the process of California independence resulting in a constitutional convention which drafts the Republic of California a shiny and perfect new constitution, I’ve got some bad news for you.
According to “How Do Peaceful Secessions Happen,” little countries dosuccessfully separate from big ones from time to time, but they always keep the same system of government afterwards. This makes sense: a newly independent California would not only be trying its hardest to prove its stability to the rest of the world, we’d also be pretty busy hashing out which parts of the U.S. Code we’d want to incorporate into California law, and which to bid buh-bye.
So, while Californians may not be stuck with America, we are stuck with the California Constitution (or, at least, some revised version of it). And if we want to build a more perfect California, we’d better start now.
That’s why our initiative advises our state elected officials:
…to pursue reforms to California’s system of government which would reasonably allow California to operate as an independent country, to the extent possible under the United States Constitution.
My hope is that if Californians believe there’s even a small chance that California will ever be independent, that’s enough to reframe a bunch of boring good-government ideas into an urgent and exciting plan to make California able to stand on its own.
Protecting our own people
The other, more practical instruction to our state elected officials is to do what they can to protect Californians from a broken federal government:
…to buffer Californians against chaos, dysfunction, and uncertainty at the federal level.
The good news is that they’ve already started. The Preserve California legislative package is one example of this, and so is SB 562 (single-payer healthcare), which, if passed, would make congressional sabotage of Obamacare largely irrelevant to Californians.
My hope is that this stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, did you know that California already has the power to make federal tax policy largely irrelevant to Californians?
Setting our elected officials up for success
So, we’re asking a lot of our elected officials here. I think probably most of them are up to the task (if you can do a halfway decent job of governing California, you can probably do anything), and many of them seem more than happy to take on something like this, if only Californians would ask.
But, still, let’s set these folks up for success.
That’s why this initiative (unlike the model one in my previous article) creates the Juan Bautista Alvarado Commission on Autonomy and Independence, to research and advise on everything having to do with autonomy and or independence, from identifying points of leverage, to proposing constitutional revisions, to international law.
The commission is modeled after…
What? Who was Juan Bautista Alvarado? You’re going to love this.
California became a U.S. state in 1850, but from 1804 to 1848, it was Alta California, part of Mexico and/or New Spain.
Alvarado (full name Juan Bautista Valentín Alvarado y Vallejo) was Alta California’s longest-serving Governor, from 1836 to 1842.
Now, although theoretically Alta California was part of Mexico and subject to Mexican law, in practice it mostly governed itself. However in 1836, this all changed; Mexico amended its constitution to centralize control in Mexico City, joined (in theory) Alta California with Baja California to form a single territory, and appointed, in series, two very unpopular governors.
Even back then, California was having none of it. Alvarado, the head of the (elected) legislature, seized the governorship with the help of his relative and childhood friend, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (yes, the one the city is named after). Alvarado just wanted Alta California to have more autonomy, but most of the rest of the legislature wanted to declare independence, so on November 3, 1836, that’s what they did, and Alvarado rolled with it.
(This date shows up in the initiative in a couple of ways; can you spot it?)
After Mexico’s appointment of a puppet governor, some minor military skirmishes, and much negotiation, Mexico relented and granted Alta California “department” status, giving California the autonomy Alvarado sought.
Now, I don’t advocate the State of California unilaterally declaring independence from its current distant national government (wayyyy more military presence than Mexico ever had), but I like Alvarado’s pragmatic attitude. As long as we get enough autonomy to run our affairs the way we see fit, sure, claim us as part of your country; just don’t tell us what to do. Mexico, whatever.
A think tank with subpoena powers
Like I was saying, the Juan Bautista Alvarado Commission is modeled off the highly successful and well-thought-of Little Hoover Commission. Originally created to identify waste and duplicative agencies, this commission has evolved to become a body that issues well-thought-out and imaginative recommendations on a variety of policy issues.
The (extremely wonky) joke here is that the Little Hoover Commission is so great that we should have two of them. But the Alvarado Commission has a different mandate: rather than focusing on the relationships between state agencies, it’s designed to focus on the relationship between our state and the federal government.
Here are some other things you should know about the commission:
- It’s cheap. Its commissioners are unpaid volunteers and elected officials, and the initiative sets aside one-thousandth of one percent of the General Fund (a little over a million dollars a year) for its staff and other expenses.
- It has a ton of advice for everybody: the initiative identifies twelve different subject areas under its purview.
- It has subpoena powers; just like the Little Hoover Commission, it can “issue subpoenas to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of books, records, papers, accounts, reports, and documents.”
- It can audit all federal dollars that pass through the state and local governments, and all federal contracts with same.
- The Governor has to report to the commission on how negotiations are going at least once a year, and if he doesn’t provide enough details, they can demand more.
- It’s not set in stone; the legislature can make changes to the code enabling the committee by a two-thirds vote as long as it’s in line with the initiative’s intent.
- It lasts forever. The commission will continue to research, advise, and, generally, imagineer California a better future until we get independence/full autonomy, or California voters decide to pull the plug.
Also, as with the Little Hoover Commission, most of the commission’s members are appointed by the Governor. Because of timing issues (the initiative would take effect in November, but the next Governor wouldn’t take office until January), Jerry Brown, who is clearly simpático towards Alvarado’s way of thinking, will have the opportunity to make these appointments if he chooses to.
I want to end with this language from the initiative, which advises California’s state and federal elected officials:
…to help foster a sense of common identity and shared interests among all Californians that transcends the political divisions of the United States.
If California is going to pull together as a nation strong enough to stand up to the federal government, it can’t be as just a blue nation; it needs to be a Californian nation. We need folks inland just as much as we need folks in the coastal cities.
I think there’s plenty of hope for California here. The American political spectrum was never a good fit for California; Californians of any party (or no party preference) generally expect the right to vote on everything, are extremely sensitive about tax increases, are willing to live-and-let-live with people from any background, and in general, don’t want to be told what to do.
But if we want to build these commonalities into real political power, we have a ways to go. Yes, our politicians are going to need to work across party lines, but they’ll be much more willing to do that folks from different parts of California are willing to engage with and respect each other.
This means that folks in cities are going to need to get a clue about things like federal land ownership, water, agriculture, and forestry, or at least accept that that clue lies with other California voters who mostly (respectfully) disagree with them.
It also means that folks in rural California are going to need to get a clue about cities. Coming out with a malapportionment scheme that ignores the existence of the nine-county Bay Area (and puts San Francisco and Del Norte County into the same “culturally similar district”) shows some real opportunities for improvement.
And if we value self-government for California relative to the federal government, we have to value self-government within California as well. The initiative is explicit about this; the goal is not simply to move power from Washington to Sacramento, it’s to:
gain greater autonomy from the federal government for California’s State and local governments, and for its People.
My hope with this initiative is, at the very least, to get California elected officials of both parties to band together on non-partisan, pro-California issues. For example, transferring federal land back to state or local control, getting Californians more control over own tax dollars, or getting the feds to back off on marijuana enforcement and civil forfeiture.
By doing so, we can teach our American friends a lesson: working together gets you what you want, and partisanship makes you weak, vulnerable, and stupid.
Will they listen? Who knows. But if we can carve out enough autonomy for California, at some point, who cares?
This article originally appeared in California Rising.