Most populous state could open up constitution
April 23, 2009
SAN CARLOS, Calif. ” Fed up with the budget crises and partisan battles that have paralyzed California for years, some influential voices believe it’s time to tear open the state constitution and start anew.
Once dismissed as a hokey gimmick, support for a proposed constitutional convention has been building in the nation’s most populous state. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has indicated he would back an effort to retool the document to make state government function more smoothly.
Opponents of the step say it’s just a ruse to raise taxes and could expose the constitution to a host of ideological and special interest-driven changes.
Indeed, constitutional conventions haven’t been embraced in other states in recent years. In 2008, voters in Hawaii, Connecticut and Illinois soundly rejected similar proposals.
Those results demonstrate the skepticism many voters bring to such efforts, according to John Matsuzaka, director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
“It’s reasonable to expect that voters would be very scared of the idea of a constitutional convention. Once you open it up, you don’t know where it’s going to go,” Matsusaka said.
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But in California, a tradition of ballot initiatives and other expressions of direct democracy have made the state’s constitution among the longest and most complicated in the world. The best known of these initiatives is Proposition 13, a constitutional amendment passed in 1978 that slashed property taxes and helped spark a taxpayer revolt across the country.
“The system is broken because the constitution is outdated and has been amended more than 500 times, and each new amendment pays no attention to last year’s amendment,” said John Grubb of the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco business organization spearheading the constitutional convention effort.
Backers of the constitutional convention want to put a proposal on the November 2010 ballot that would narrowly focus the convention on budget reform and a few other specific matters. Divisive social issues like gay marriage would be excluded.
At issue is the requirement that a two-thirds vote of the California Legislature is needed to pass the state’s budget and tax increases. California is one of just a handful of states requiring such a supermajority, and most years it leads to a weeks-long budget impasse. Convention backers want to drop the two-thirds majority rule to 55 percent.
The budget situation was particularly acute this year, as the state nearly went broke while lawmakers locked horns over how to close a projected $42 billion gap. Schwarzenegger signed a budget agreement in February but it will not go into effect unless voters approve several provisions of the agreement in a special election scheduled for May 19.
Polls show the ballot measures will likely fail, throwing the state back into fiscal chaos.
“Look anywhere in California and you’ll find a crisis,” Grubb continued. “Our education system used to be the best in the country, now we’re 49th or 50th. Our transit network is the worst in the nation, our water system is on the verge of collapse, and our prison system is overflowing. The Legislature is responsible and they aren’t able to do their jobs.”
Interest in the proposed constitutional convention has been growing. A February meeting in Sacramento to discuss it drew several hundred attendees. Another meeting last week outside Los Angeles, organized by several local chambers of commerce, drew broad interest.
State Senator George Runner, a Republican, spoke out against the proposal at that meeting.
“If the purpose is to make it easier to raise taxes, there will never be an agreement,” Runner said, adding he was concerned about who would be chosen as delegates to the convention.
“California is a very diverse state,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more emotional or controversial than choosing who the delegates would be to rewrite the state’s constitution.”
Organizers are proposing that 200 people serve as delegates, including 80 elected officials from across the state.
In addition to budget reform, backers want to change the constitution to allow nonpartisan or “open” primaries in hopes that more moderates will be elected to the Legislature. They’re also proposing that the constitution allow local governments to collect and spend tax revenues, rather than have them centrally controlled by the state.
That’s a key reason why Rich Gordon, a county supervisor in San Mateo County outside San Francisco, says he’s in favor of the constitutional convention.
“What’s really happened in California is we have disconnected revenue and responsibility,” Gordon said, noting that counties are charged with services included child protection, welfare assistance, and job training.
“We haven’t had a cost-of-living adjustment in a decade,” Gordon said. “And because of the state budget crisis, we have job training centers where people have to wait in line. Patients who need to see us in our medical clinics may wait six-to-eight weeks.”