Voters in one of California's largest counties to decide if it should explore seceding from state

Martin Estacio
Victorville Daily Press

VICTORVILLE, Calif. – Voters in California's largest county by land size will decide in November if they want the county to possibly explore breaking off or seceding from the state as one of many potential options to "obtain the county's fair share of state funding."

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved the advisory measure unanimously last week. 

With roughly 2.18 million residents, San Bernardino County has the fifth highest population in California. The county's population is roughly equal to New Mexico’s and larger than 14 other states and the District of Columbia, according to census data. It shares a border with Nevada to the east and Los Angeles and Orange Counties to the west. 

The county is also the largest in the contiguous United States with 20,068 square miles and could fit New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island within its borders.

The measure asks voters: “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?”

It is simply an advisory question, which, if the voters approve, will not be controlling or force the supervisors to pursue any action if they choose not to.

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Jeff Burum, a local real estate developer, spurred the debate after asking supervisors in July to consider placing a secession measure on the ballot and turn the county into a new state with the possible name of “Empire.”

He argued the state wasn’t providing the county with enough resources or funding to deal with its issues, including an increased population growth.

“It’s time for us to get our fair share allocation,” he said during a July 26 supervisors’ meeting.

Downtown San Bernardino, Calif., is seen on July 12, 2012. Voters in Southern California's San Bernardino County will have the chance to decide in November whether they want the county to potentially secede from the state.

'Very low probability of success'

The idea of secession isn’t new, but whether San Bernardino County could realistically break off on its own is unlikely.

“There is a very low probability of success in this case,” Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, said in an email.

The Constitution requires that a secession be approved by the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress to become a new state. The last time a new state was formed this way was in 1863 with West Virginia, Pitney said.

Since California first became a state in 1850, there have been at least 220 attempts to break it up, according to the California State Library. None have succeeded.

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Elected officials at a meeting earlier this month seemed to acknowledge the remote possibility of becoming a new state and emphasized the need to see if the county was getting the funding it deserved.

“I am not in favor of secession, you know. I just don’t believe that we have the resources or wherewithal, the staff or the ability to create our state,” said Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr., who added he supported a study that would analyze whether funding received was equitable.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr. speaks during a meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

County spokesperson David Wert said a finance team conducted a per-capita comparison of state and federal revenue “captured” by California counties based on state controller data.

A list he emailed to the Victorville (California) Daily Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, showed San Bernardino County ranked 36 out of 56 counties in 2020.

“The County is taking a deeper dive into this and other data to reveal specific areas of concern, but clearly there are significant disparities,” Wert said.

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Follow Victorville Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio on Twitter: @DP_mestacio.