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San Bernardino County voters to decide Fair-Share initiative

If passed, the measure will authorize the county to find out if its getting an equitable share of state revenue compared to other similar-sized counties. If it isn’t, the measure recommends several remedies, including leaving the state, although such a move seems unlikely. 



San Bernardino City Councilman Theodore Sanchez doesn’t believe that San Bernardino County will ever become the 51st state.

“That’s never going to happen” said Sanchez, who has represented San Bernardino’s first district since being elected to the council four years ago. “I’m going to become an astronaut and fly to Mars before San Bernardino County secedes from the state of California.

That’s just not going to happen.”

But that idea, as far-fetched as it might seem, has gained traction since longtime Inland Empire developer Jeff Burum suggested to the board of supervisors at their last meeting in July that they consider letting county voters decide if they want to become a state.

Despite being the fifth-largest county in the state, and reportedly the largest county geographically in the United States – a little more than 20,000 square miles and a population of 2.1 million – smaller counties consistently get more money from the state, according to Burum.

“San Bernardino County has long suffered enough from the state of California’s allocation of resources,” Burum told the board. “The state of California continues to allocate resources to high-cost areas, to our detriment and the detriment of other Inland communities.

“It’s time for our citizens to stand up and say enough is enough, to push back, stand up for our rights and get our fair share.”

One week later, the board of supervisors voted to place the Fair-Share Initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot. If it passes, county officials will conduct a detailed investigation that would determine how much money San Bernardino County receives from Sacramento, and whether it’s getting its “fair share” compared to other similar-sized sized counties.

Ultimately, the initiative recommends that the county consider multiple ways to get more equitable funding from Sacramento, including litigation and “up to and including secession.”

Those five words resonated enough that a possible state called “Inland” – Burum’s suggested name – became an international story.

But to Sanchez, the bigger story is the message that one of the state’s largest counties is sending to the state legislature, which many maintain has a history of passing draconian regulations and unfunded mandates on to cities and counties.

“I like the fact that they used the word secession because it’s a strong word and it will get people’s attention,” Sanchez said. “A lot of studies about the state’s spending have been done, and they’ve been forgotten quickly, but this is not something the people in Sacramento will be able to ignore.

“I think it could start a trend. It could happen in other places.”

Board Chairman Curt Hagman has also admitted that secession by San Bernardino County is extremely unlikely, if not out of the question. Among other things, both houses of Congress and the president would have to sigh off on it, not just San Bernardino County voters.

But ideally, the Fair-Share Initiative would accomplish its goals without San Bernardino County declaring its independence from California, Hagman said.

“It’s really a popularity contest when you’re trying to get money out of Sacramento,” the supervisor said, “A lot of times it seems like our state representatives don’t want to help us out. We’re in the bottom 12 to 15 counties, in terms of revenue from the state, per capita, but we’re the fifth-largest county, and that doesn’t seem right.”

Hagman spelled out the motivations behind the Fair Share Initiative in a guest editorial.

“At its core, the San Bernardino County Fair-Share Initiative is about a study, and it is about effective engagement with state decision-makers,” the pair wrote. “Exploring secession would be a distant last resort. However, not having that in our toolbox signals that we are not as determined and committed as we must be in defense of our communities.”

Assuming that voters approve the measure, county staff will examine every source of funding from Sacramento and compare that data to other counties, a process that could be finished in a year, Hagman said.

“It should get the attention of our state representatives, and give us more ammo to fight our battles with,” Hagman said in a telephone interview. “I can’t tell you what, specifically, they should be looking for. That’s up for them to determine.

“But we’re in the bottom 12 to 15 counties in terms of getting the most revenue from the state, per capita, despite being so large. That doesn’t seem right.”

But state and local tax revenues are intended to meet the needs of the state, and not necessarily return dollars and services to the jurisdiction from which they came, said Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center, a nonprofit policy analysis a firm in Sacramento.

Counties with large populations are more likely to pay higher taxes relative to the services they receive, because it costs more to provide some services in remote areas, regardless of the population, said Hoene, who replied to questions in an emailed statement.

“We caution against [comparing] taxes paid vs. spending received, because that misses what it means to live in a state and be a part of communities where we all agree to make contributions that go toward the greater good,” Hoene wrote. “ Wealthier people and places contribute to the tax system, which is more progressive in California, in order for the state and counties to provide services to households with low incomes that need help making ends meet.

“Wealthier counties and jurisdictions will inevitably contribute more.”

While it has a large population, San Bernardino County also has a lot of rural areas that are lightly populated and more difficult provide services, not the typical profile of the state’s 58 counties.

“If more aid is needed from the state, the best approach might be to account for what those needs are, and then make the case for the specific funding,” Hoene wrote.

Meanwhile, San Bernardino County officials must wait to see what the voters decide in two months before making its next move.

“For the most part people seem to support the Fair Share Initiative, and I’m not surprised,” Hagman said. “How can you be against finding out if we’re getting the amount of state revenue we deserve?”

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