Jewish World Review June 11, 2002/ 1 Tamuz, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Secessionist fever
in the second city | LOS ANGELES Talk of secession, once famously confused with sedition in America, is always exciting.

But this time it's not talk of a state leaving the union, or even of a city leaving a state, but of big neighborhoods - really big neighborhoods - leaving the city. First some of the citizens of the San Fernando Valley, then in Hollywood, began talking of leaving Los Angeles. Now it's more than mere talk; it comes to a vote on Nov. 5.

If "the Valley," as the sprawling neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley are known, actually leaves the City of Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest city will drop to third, once more behind Chicago. If Hollywood leaves, the impact will be even deeper.

The consequences will reach much farther than stunted civic pride and blunted boosterism. The full economic impact can only be guessed at, but what is known is that nearly half of all manufacturing enterprises in Los Angeles are in the Valley, and 15 percent of the county's workers, with higher than average incomes, live in the Valley. If Hollywood follows the Valley out of the city, the population will drop by 40 percent, and with it the city's clout in Sacramento and Washington, and as clout goes so will access to a lot of the federal gravy now ladled onto Los Angeles. In all, it would be the nightmare on Wilshire Boulevard.

Blunt instruments always work best on politicians, and threats of secession have worked well here. The politicians at City Hall are finally working with business interests to "regularize," i.e., cut, some of the onerous taxes on business that have made Los Angeles user-hostile to business. The city imposes the highest business taxes of any municipality in Southern California, and this is felt particularly keenly in the Valley because Burbank, next door, imposes some of the lowest business taxes.

One particular gripe is the gross-receipts tax imposed by the city, a tax on the sales price, such as on an automobile, not on profit. Lawyers, accountants and doctors pay the tax on billing totals, before deducting costs. Automobile dealers, who are to Southern California as farmers are to Iowa and cattle men to Texas, and lawyers, who are an affliction everywhere, are among the noisiest proponents of the secession movement.

Beyond specifics, much of the resentment in the Valley, and in Hollywood, grows from the traditional feeling that "nobody at City Hall loves us." Walter Mosher, president of a Valley firm that manufactures medical equipment, tells the Los Angeles Times that he is "totally for secession."

"The Valley has been a patsy for that downtown crowd that takes our money for every cockeyed scheme, like this NFL football business." This "NFL football business" is a scheme for the city to offer reclaimed land for a new stadium for a new football team to replace the Rams, who moved several years ago to St. Louis, and the Raiders, who moved back to Oakland after spending a few futile years here.

The secessionists argue that by starting all over to build a city, they can not only cut taxes but also eliminate much of a sluggish bureaucracy that, like government bureaucracies everywhere, stifles initiative and is usually efficient only at finding reasons why good and useful things can't be done. They're particularly concerned about the city's municipal pension system, which allows workers to retire after 30 years' service at 70 percent pay, with health benefits paid for life. "No business can afford that anymore," David Fleming, a Studio City lawyer who is a leader in the secessionist movement, tells the Los Angeles Times. He would negotiate a different pension for newly hired workers in the new city bureaucracy.

The unions, naturally, see secession as a threat to the power they exert now. The leaders of the Southern California AFL-CIO expect to represent workers in the new city, or cities, but having to negotiate with two or three cities instead of one could weaken their clout. The chief of the Southern California AFL-CIO vows to turn out nearly a half-million union voters on Nov. 5.

Secession talk has already succeeded in getting the attention of the elites. One suggested compromise is a system of boroughs, like New York's, with the responsibility - and authority - for basic municipal services redistributed away from City Hall. The elites, with no Abe Lincoln to fight off the secessionists, are concerned that a bruising campaign will inflame racial and class divisions in the nation's most racially diverse city, and the real issue, the delivery of services, will be lost in the din and clatter of raised voices.

Whatever the result, a lot of Americans elsewhere have a stake in it, too. What starts in California, good or bad (and a lot of it bad), inevitably ends everywhere else.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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