The notion of a California constitutional convention, perhaps better thought of as a Pandora’s box on steroids, is dead at least for this year and most likely for many years to come. Good thing, too.
Good, because there are other means afoot for fixing California government and now Californians can get on with real reforms that don’t involve buying pigs in pokes as a constitutional convention necessarily would.
This supposed method of fixing all California’s governmental problems at one fell swoop was so ill-conceived that no-one had any clue what it might produce. Sponsors claimed they could prevent a convention from altering the Proposition 13 property tax limits or changing abortion laws, recognition of domestic partnerships or any other social issues. In fact, they said they could set this up so delegates could do little but decide whether future budgets would require a two-thirds vote or not, whether the state would have a lieutenant governor, and whether new rules should restrict what ballot initiatives contain and how they reach the ballot.
Pretty boring stuff for the delegates, but constitutional scholars claimed nothing could prevent a constitutional convention from doing anything it wanted, just like the original one that produced the Constitution of the United States. Delegates to that gathering were supposed to refine the old Articles of Confederation that bound the original 13 states together only loosely.
But that convention turned around and designed a whole new system of government. And so long as a California convention didn’t do anything directly contradictory to that Constitution, it could have done pretty much whatever it wanted, no matter what the sponsors said.
The only restraint would have been that whatever the delegates did would have to be approved by a majority of the state’s voters.
So it really would have been a Pandora’s box, with nobody sure what might emerge.
Since the sponsors dislike the current initiative process, where anyone with either the volunteer manpower or the money to hire petition circulators can pretty much get any measure onto the ballot for an up-or-down vote, those most intimately involved with the current process resisted.
The four big companies that now coordinate initiative petition drives and hire the carriers who accost shoppers at malls, grocery stores and big box stores simply refused to have anything to do with the petitions to call a constitutional convention. Before they called it quits, the initiative sponsors – primarily the business-oriented Bay Area Council and its political committee known as Repair California – griped that those companies were discriminating against the “con-con.”
But nothing could force the petition signature firms to play ball with an outfit that wanted to destroy their business or alter it beyond recognition.
Besides that, the convention backers had trouble raising money for their effort even from companies they expected to support them. Might those big companies have feared that a convention could go strongly populist and get rid of many tax breaks they now enjoy? Nobody’s saying.
The early evaporation of the con-con illusion now leaves room for real reform, and convention backers still have the ongoing initiative process as a way to achieve everything they said they wanted, except they’ll have to go about it one issue at a time.
The reformist playing field might now be dominated by California Forward, non-profit, foundation-backed outfit that has always wanted to approach things one issue at a time.
California Forward, spearheaded by lawyer and former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg and supported by major foundations – not corporations – is behind several new legislative proposals that might reach the November ballot. They call for long-term budgeting by state government, with minimum two-year budgets that could be passed by simple majorities in the Legislature, rather than the current two-thirds majority. California Forward turned to this route after it too, had trouble getting the money to pay petition carriers.
Its plan would keep intact the two-thirds majority for imposing new taxes and cut off all pay to the governor and legislators whenever a budget is late. It would also force lawmakers to identify funding sources for any new spending that tops $25 million per year and compel ongoing reviews of all state programs to make sure they are run efficiently and accomplishing their purposes. It also requires that one-time, cash windfalls be used for one-time expenses, like building roads or buying parkland.
How sensible can you get?
California Forward also backs the open primary measure on the June ballot as Proposition 14.
Almost everything California Forward proposes was also backed by the constitutional convention backers. But this is the sensible, incremental way of creating change one item at a time, rather than taking the blunderbuss approach a convention would bring, with its vast potential for major mistakes that could damage this state for generations to come.
Mirror Contributing Writeropinion@smmirror.com