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Remaking the State Constitution: A Conventional Idea:

Does California’s Constitution need a makeover? The impasse over the budget, gridlock in the Legislature, and a constitution that has not been updated since 1879, has convinced a number of civic leaders that a constitutional convention should be convened.  On July 17, these leaders met at SMC Broad Center for a discussion organized by Repair California and Santa Monica College.

Former Santa Monica mayor Mike Feinstein and SMC Trustee Nancy Greenstein introduced the event as a “stepping stone to a historic transformation in California.” The panelists, who included Robert Stern, President of the Center for Governmental Studies; Steven Hill and Marl Paul of New America Foundation; Jim Wunderman, President of Bay Area Council, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl, and Santa Monica City Council’s Pam O’Connor, agreed on the idea of a convention, but had varied observations about its organization, and what reforms they wanted to see.

Stern noted that most Californians have more confidence in our initiative system than in our legislature. He wanted to see “fewer initiatives, better written initiatives, and more information about initiatives.”

Hill outlined the three ways delegates could be chosen for a convention: by appointment (problem: who would pick them?), by election (problem: we might get a mirror-image of the Legislature), and by random selection, creating “citizen delegates” who would be paid for their time.

Paul stated that “at the heart of this is California’s crazy experiment of a two-thirds vote to pass both budget and tax bills. That experiment has utterly failed.” He felt that the state Constitution has no distinction between “framework and policy” and was “hopelessly muddled.”

Wunderman deplored the influence of lobbyists on Sacramento. “There are 1200 lobbyists-everything is jammed up.” Brownley, whom Feinstein described as “the kind of legislator we need more of,” spoke of her frustration at trying to pass bills against gridlock. Rosendahl expressed support for budget and tax reform, term limits, clean elections, reforming the initiative process, and civil liberties. And O’Connor, who serves on the MTA Board, lamented: ”We’re getting nothing from the State” to help with public transit or other city or regional problems.

Questions from the audience dealt with financing (answer: mostly through public donations), preventing a “runaway convention” that would drastically revise the state laws (answer: limit the topics to be revised), and how to raise awareness of the issue (answer: the Internet).

In addition to the questions, input was collected from the audience via feedback sheets in order to formulate language for ballot measures calling for a constitutional convention.

Repair California is holding several other events of this kind throughout the state, gearing up toward submitting ballot language to the Attorney General by September 25, 2009, for two measures for the November 2010 election. One of these will ask if people want a Constitutional Convention, and the other will ask them to vote for the convention to be called by the voters, overriding the rule that the Legislature must call for a convention. For more information, see repaircalifornia.org.

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