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Golis: Hard times in rural counties


In Siskiyou County, the Board of Supervisors last week declared its intention to secede from the state of California and form the 51st state in the union. The 44,000 residents of this rural, sparsely populated county on the Oregon border would become residents of the new state of Jefferson.

If you think this is a futile and silly gesture, if you think these folks are in denial about what it costs to run a state, you might be right.

But the anger and frustration in Siskiyou County speak to circumstances that deserve some attention from the other 38 million Californians.

In many rural counties, these are tough times — defined by chronic unemployment, low wages, high rates of poverty, declining public services, social distress, lack of access to health care and pessimism about the future.

(In Siskiyou County, the unemployment rate is 12.9 percent, which is only good if you recall that it's down from 20percent in 2011.)

On Thursday, Staff Writer Mary Callahan reported that the average death rate in Lake County is almost twice the state average — a grim reflection of "socioeconomic conditions that have many residents living on the margins."

In matters of health, Lake County suffers from high rates of smoking, excessive drinking, people who are overweight, drug abuse and accidents, plus a shortage of medical providers. It also suffers from higher rates of poverty and unemployment (12 percent now, 19.1 percent in 2010).

The small numbers of voters in Siskiyou, Lake and other rural counties translate into a lack of political influence in a big, populous state like California — but that doesn't excuse the rest of us from being concerned about their well-being. We ought to care about improving their prospects.

Whenever times are tough, people tend to look for someone to blame. In Siskiyou County, they've decided that government regulation is the culprit.

SiskiyouDaily.com quoted one secession proponent: "We do appreciate the county board of supervisors knowing that our economy is really poor here. We're having a terrible time for a lot of reasons, and the biggest reason is over-regulating."

State and federal regulations can inflict a disproportionate impact on counties with economies dependent on natural resources — timber, agriculture, mining, fishing.

And, in theory, statehood would at least spare Siskiyou County from California regulators. (If it wanted to escape federal regulation — say, the Endangered Species Act — it would be obliged to secede from the union as well.)

But it is also true that technology and globalization are changing everything. It's not new that the populations of rural counties are stagnant or declining. Too many kids are going off to school and never coming back because the jobs that pay the most are somewhere else.

For employers looking to expand, there are just too many obstacles — long distances, a lack of broadband service, a shortage of educated workers — to locate in remote areas of the state.

In the political history of California, schemes to divide the state are nothing new. The original plan to create the state of Jefferson — combining counties in Northern California and Southern Oregon — was hatched more than 70years ago. (Driving north on Interstate 5, just before you arrive in the Siskiyou county seat of Yreka, you can see the barn with "State of Jefferson" painted on the side.)

There have been dozens of proposals to divide the state, north and south, east and west. Proponents variously complained about a loss of property rights, the need to control water resources, declining political influence and high taxes — all of which were linked to an absence of economic vitality.

A couple of years ago, a Riverside County supervisor proposed a new state that included San Diego, Orange and 11inland counties in Southern California. Oddly, this self-proclaimed conservative was unhappy about a cut in state aid to counties. (He didn't mention that those 13 counties receive more from the state government than they pay back in taxes.)

The late state Sen. Randolph Collier, a Yreka Democrat known as the Silver Fox of the Siskiyous, once proposed restoring the political influence of rural counties by dividing the state down the middle, separating inland counties from the coastal counties with larger populations.

Not much has changed. To understand political divisions in California today, you can begin with the liberal voters in coastal enclaves and the conservative voters in the Central Valley and elsewhere.

It's easy to poke fun at Siskiyou County's desire to become the 51st state. In moments in which they move beyond the emotion of this issue, residents must know their small tax base couldn't begin to pay for the highways, parks, fire protection and other services maintained by state government. (Talking about the financial obstacles to statehood, one proponent argued that independence could be won with the help of a loan from Congress. Good luck with that.)

Still, these remain circumstances that deserve our attention. Rural areas are forgotten and hurting. The people who live in these counties deserve our understanding and when possible, our help.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>