SACRAMENTO -- When Assemblyman Stan Statham (R) last year proposed an advisory vote on splitting California into two states, he was ridiculed in the Legislature. One colleague, Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D), called him "the Jefferson Davis of California."

But few people are laughing now at Statham, who has been inundated with media inquiries from throughout the world since the June 2 primary, when a nonbinding measure to divide California won approval from voters in 27 of the 31 counties where it was on the ballot. The result so impressed influential Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D) that he appointed a committee headed by Statham and charged it with devising a plan next year to break up the nation's most populous state, subject to voter approval.

Instead of two Californias, however, Statham now wants three. His new approach is a response to voters in San Francisco and neighboring San Mateo County who rejected the two-state plan, apparently because they didn't want to be part of a state that included Los Angeles. "I made a mistake in not recognizing how San Franciscans feel about Los Angeles," Statham said.

In another advisory vote on the same ballot, San Francisco voters said they would prefer to be part of the state of "Northern California" if the state were sundered. This prompted Statham to propose states of North, Central and South California.

O'Connell, a Santa Barbaran who is now committee vice chairman, said hearings will be held in all three prospective states to determine boundaries. He said he is not wedded to the three-state idea but thinks it could make California more manageable and give the West greater influence in Washington in the form of four new U.S. senators.

Statham's proposal is at least the seventh attempt to break up California, but the first to be taken seriously. Until recently, state officials pointed with pride to the productivity and relentless population growth of the megastate, home to one in eight Americans. If California were a separate nation, it is often said, it would have a budget greater than all but six nations in the world.

But this claim to fame wore thin as the state sunk into economic crisis and political gridlock. Despite passing the largest tax increase in its history last year, California is now so broke that Gov. Pete Wilson (R) is talking seriously about issuing warrants, a form of IOU, to meet the state payroll if no budget agreement is reached by the end of the month.

"What's fueling this movement is the same disgust with government that's propelling Ross Perot," said Statham, a lanky businessman from the northern California town of Redding.

Statham has always believed that pastoral northern California should go its own way. He espoused dividing the state when he was first elected in 1976 and has done so ever since. A sign outside his state Capitol office says: "Stan Statham, assemblyman for the 51st state."

As the state's fiscal problems deepened in recent years, the idea began to be taken seriously by county boards of supervisors in northern and central California and then by the Legislature. Many northerners view Los Angeles as a congested citadel of gangland crime, and support for the advisory measure may have been strengthened by the recent riots there.

But Statham argues that Los Angeles would have the most to gain from breaking up the state. The geographically remote state capital of Sacramento is 500 miles from Los Angeles, and the Legislature has been slow to address the peculiar problems of the Southern California metropolis. Several measures that would provide financial assistance to rebuild riot-torn areas of the city are languishing in committee, and none appears likely to pass.

Under the three-state plan, which Statham said will be put to the Legislature next year and then to voters, California would be divided into a northern state with a population of 2.35 million people, a central state of 10.1 million people and a southern state with a population of 17.85 million. The split would require congressional approval, which Statham believes would be forthcoming if the plan has strong voter support.

The breakup legislation contains safeguards designed to prevent tax increases, education funding cuts and pension plan changes in the new states. State colleges and universities in each California would be prohibited from charging tuition to students from the other two.