Dear San Bernardino County,
I understand your desire to leave California.
If you’re a Californian or a Californian entity and haven’t thought of the start, then you probably don’t belong in the Golden State.
What I don’t understand is why you are asking your constituents to approve secession in the November ballot to make San Bernardino County its own state, the 51st US state.
Because your biggest problem is that you look too much like an American state.
You already have the size of one. You are the largest county in the United States by land area, as large as West Virginia and occupying more land than New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. With nearly 2.2 million people, you have more people than New Mexico and 14 other states.
You have a lot of the problems of an American state. You are politically polarized and therefore difficult to govern, with no clear majority party (your voters are 41% Democrats and 29% Republicans). You are plagued by economic inequalities that match those of Venezuela.
And you are geographically divided into regions that have little in common with each other.
Almost all of your population – around 80% – is crammed into densely built-up areas in your southwest corner, which is effectively part of the Los Angeles metropolitan suburbs. Another 400,000 people live on the outskirts of the Victor Valley Desert. The rest occupies your inner mountains and your deserts.
Now, I know the people running your secession campaign — county supervisors, real estate developers — imagine statehood will free you from Sacramento edicts. But don’t they read the newspapers? American states, and California in particular, are increasingly at the mercy of a massively powerful and ever-expanding federal government.
It’s surprising that you don’t understand this, because you, San Bernardino County, are already under federal jurisdiction. Indeed, with all your national parks and wilderness areas, over 80% of your land is owned by the US government. Given these realities, statehood will only make you more of a DC colony, since you won’t have the rest of California to fight the feds on your behalf.
If you really want independence and greater prosperity, you have to think bigger: why not become your own nation? In this way, all these federal lands would become yours to be developed. And you could provide more services and invest more in your own infrastructure if you could print your own money, which I guess would be called ‘dino’.
Such a country could attract new residents, including this columnist. Considering America’s decline and the fact that my mother is from the county and her family – from retired teachers in Redlands to truck drivers in Apple Valley – remain resident, I could imagine immigrating to Loma Linda and apply for citizenship in your new nation.
Unfortunately, that will never happen. San Bernardino’s statehood would require a political miracle – the approval of the state of California, both houses of Congress, and the president. But becoming a nation would be even more difficult. That’s why we’ll never enjoy the spectacle of a delegation from your nation’s capital – Barstow, will we? — arriving in Brussels to apply for NATO membership.
So, you will have to resort to a second option:
Don’t separate yourself from the state of California. Instead, split up.
Since you hate being a county, why not sell yourself, in pieces, to your neighbors? You would find plenty of takers. California is overdue for a reset of its county boundaries, which were mostly determined in the late 19th century.
Many of your communities could do better under different management. Your towns near your western border, from Chino Hills to Victorville, should move back to Los Angeles, where they could be more easily connected to the growing Metro transit system.
Your hill stations and towns on your southern border, including San Bernardino itself, could become more prosperous by joining Riverside County, which has been more economically successful than you for the past two generations.
You could forward your empty desert areas – all the way north of Interstate 40 – to Inyo or Kern counties, who know how to deal with empty spaces. And, in order to increase your housing supply, you could turn over your land near the Nevada border to Clark County, whose aggressive developers would soon be building new Las Vegas suburbs. (That might require a land swap between states — maybe California could swap some San Bernardino land in exchange for the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.)
Some might call this breakup the end of county, but it would actually be a new beginning. And a rare win-win for your region. Your communities would be left with new options and possibilities. And you would save yourself the indignities of being a California county or becoming a US state.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
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