Few topics related to California’s state government are as sensitive as Proposition 13. Which is why it is so important for Californians to clearly understand what impact a state constitutional convention could have on the landmark initiative. So let’s be clear: The constitutional convention proposal currently under circulation would be legally prohibited from proposing any tax increase whatsoever, including those taxes related to Proposition 13.
The reason is simple. Californians have made up their minds: they are unwilling to increase their property taxes to make up for Sacramento’s shortfall. Limiting the Convention from this issue would allow it to sidestep a poison pill and focus on the critical changes our state needs to end farcical budgeting, a bloated bureaucracy, the over-concentration of power in Sacramento, and a host of other problems.
But how can we be sure that these limits aren’t simply ignored? Can a state constitutional convention be limited? The answer is a resounding yes.
Unlike federal constitutional conventions, state constitutional conventions can be successfully limited in scope, and indeed have been on many occasions throughout US history. Furthermore, the legality of such limits are backed by a clear legal tradition established by State Supreme Courts going back to the 19th century.
These opinions establish that the people, as sovereigns, are free to limit state conventions both “to” certain topics and “from” other topics. An 1874 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that “the people have the same right to limit the powers of their [constitutional convention] delegates that they have to bound the power of their representatives.” This opinion is the prevailing one, and has been echoed in ruling after ruling from Virginia to Rhode Island, and from Kentucky to Tennessee.
Californians both want and need this convention to succeed, that’s why it’s important that the voters give the convention a laser-like focus on what issues are on-the-table and which are off-the-table. Limiting the California constitutional convention “to” governance reform, and limiting it “from” changing laws associated with marriage, abortion, capital punishment, basic freedoms, and tax increases–including those associated with Proposition 13–is to follow a rock-solid legal tradition.
The fact that it will be the voters themselves–and not an unpopular legislature–who establish these limits, further cements both their legality and their legitimacy.
That said, there are other, lesser known parts of Proposition 13 which the people deserve the opportunity to review.
One of those parts established a 2/3 supermajority threshold for tax increases. One may argue for or against raising or lowering this threshold, but what is clear to all is that our current system is broken, and this threshold is part of that system. Many liberals and conservatives agree it deserves a citizen review.
Another part of Proposition 13 centralized tax revenues in Sacramento at the expense of local government autonomy. This is bad policy for two reasons.
First, it strangles what should be one of California’s greatest strengths, its diversity, by forcing irreconcilably different regional interests into zero-sum political battles in Sacramento. Why not instead allow the state’s political, social, and economic diversity to flourish by decentralizing Sacramento, and by providing for greater regional autonomy?
Second, it has allowed the state to hide the scope of its dysfunction by skimming the coffers of responsible local governments. The recent budget meltdown has turned the skimming into an all-out raid, leading to draconian service cuts, expensive litigation, and the near-bankruptcies of several municipalities across the state.
Since this movement is about restoring the balance of power between state and local government, this centralization question absolutely must be reviewed, and that requires opening up parts of Proposition 13. Luckily, these cows are sacred to no one.
California is perhaps the most diverse, innovative, hard-working, and creative assemblage of individuals in human history. Our state is brimming with potential, yet our government is a fundamental, catastrophic, and undeniable failure.
Californians know we can do better, and this belief in California is fueling an historic movement for the state’s first constitutional convention in 130 years. The people are speaking up: they want to review this government. Let them deliberate.