As you may have heard, the movement for a California constitutional convention officially died at 11:30am February 12, 2010, a Friday. It’s been one heckuva roller coaster, and we gave it all we had. More on this soon…
California is facing a crisis. Our state’s broken governance system has left us with a $20 billion debt and facing down the possibility of bankruptcy. Repairing California requires real action and substantive reform, like calling for a state Constitutional Convention.
This is truly a grassroots, citizen-led movement to fix our state by calling for the first Constitutional Convention in California since 1878. After years of leaving our state beholden to special interest groups and the dysfunctional initiative process, California’s Constitution has become incapable of serving the people of our state.
In order to spread our campaign’s message and generate support for this people’s movement, we will be holding our first Leadership Forum this Wednesday.
Date: February 10
Time: 6:30pm to 8:30 pm
Location: Santa Clara County Convention Center, 5001 Great American Parkway, Santa Clara in Meeting Room #209.
Members of the Convention Movement will be on hand to speak about the process of calling a state Constitutional Convention as well as address some of the major issues that have contributed to California’s decline. This is a great opportunity to come and learn more about this truly historic campaign.
We are all undoubtedly aware that California needs help to become great again. And as Californians, we want to do whatever we can to accomplish this. Our movement will take a big step on Wednesday evening and we hope to see you there.
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SAN FRANCISCO and LOS ANGELES, February 3, 2009 — Today Repair California, a group of everyday Californians, reformers, and advocacy groups demanded that signature gathering firms, their regional coordinators, and some crew chiefs, immediately cease the improper, unethical, and illegal boycott of the Constitutional Convention movement, and stop the threats, intimidation, and other dirty tricks that are interfering with California citizens’ right to collect signatures for the Convention campaign.
“We are building an organization that can survive the dirty tricks, but rather than cover up these moves to snuff out this citizens’ movement, we felt it best to expose them to sunlight,” said John Grubb, Campaign Director of Repair California. “Here lies the dark underbelly of California’s political control. It’s a very bad sign for our democracy that reminds one more of ‘Caligula’ than ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ We need help from political leaders and everyday Californians willing to stand up and loudly say this is not right.”
Repair California has turned in ballot language to call the first Constitutional Convention in
California in more than 130 years. Citing a broken system of governance, the measures would call a limited Constitutional Convention to reform four areas of the constitution: the budget process; the election and initiative process; restoring the balance of power between the state and local governments; and, creating new systems to improve government effectiveness. The Convention is specifically prohibited from proposing tax increases or from considering changes to social issues such as marriage, abortion, gambling, affirmative action, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, immigration, or the death penalty. Voters will decide on calling the Convention on the November 2010 ballot, the Convention would be held in 2011 and its proposed reforms would require voter approval in one of the three scheduled statewide elections in 2012.
“Californians deserve better,” said Jim Wunderman, the President and CEO of the Bay Area Council, the organization that started the Convention movement. “Our entire democracy is demeaned when the question of calling a Convention is denied a fair fight on the field of ideas before the voters.”
The letters sent today by Repair California’s attorneys at Hanson Bridgett alleges that certain signature gathering firms are engaged in conduct that violates State and Federal Antitrust law, and the Constitutional rights of Repair California and the people supporting it. The “blacklisting” of Repair California has harmed the Convention campaign by limiting and interfering with its right to engage a signature collection firm, and has resulted in a drastic increase in prices offered Repair California. A group boycott violates Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, and it is also contrary to the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL). Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200, et. seq, which protects California businesses and consumers from unfair and anti-competitive activities. In addition, the Convention campaign alleges that people actually or apparently acting on the signature gathering firms’ behalf are engaged in behavior intended to threaten and intimidate persons who are circulating petitions calling the Convention. Also, there is evidence of “dirty tricks” designed to thwart the Constitutional Convention petition effort. For example, persons acting on the signature gathering firms’ behalf may have thrown valid signatures away. Hanson Bridgett, lawyers for the Convention campaign, have notified those who may be responsible for such illegal activities that Repair California, and the citizens it represents, have the Constitutional right to circulate petitions to qualify an initiative for the ballot, and that any interference with this right is a basis for a lawsuit.
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.
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On December 22nd, California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office released the Title and Summary of the two Constitutional Convention ballot measures.
ALLOWS VOTERS TO PLACE QUESTION OF CALLING A CONSTITUTIONAL
CONVENTION ON THE BALLOT. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.
Amends the Constitution to permit voters to place on the ballot the question of whether to call a convention to revise the state Constitution. Permits any ballot measure calling a convention to specify the parts of the Constitution that the convention can or cannot revise. Requires any ballot measure calling a convention to specify the process for selection of convention delegates. Repeals requirement that convention delegates be elected by voters. Permits voters to call a convention no more than once every ten years. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: No direct fiscal impact, as any effect would depend on whether and how voters used the power to call and accept the recommendations of a constitutional convention in the future. Potentially major fiscal changes in state and local governments could result.
CALLS A LIMITED CONVENTION TO PROPOSE CHANGES TO STATE
CONSTITUTION. INITIATIVE STATUTE.
Calls convention to propose changes to state Constitution related to government, state spending and budgeting, elections and lobbying. Provides that proposed changes to constitution or laws become effective only after approved by voters in statewide election. Forbids changes to taxes or fees, marriage, abortion, gambling, affirmative action, freedom of the press or religion, immigration rights, and the death penalty. Establishes rules for selecting convention delegates to reflect a diverse range of citizens. Requires selection of delegates and conduct of convention to be open and public. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: One-time increase of state government spending up to $95 million to administer a constitutional convention. Potentially major changes in state and local governments if voters approve the convention’s recommendations, including higher or lower revenues or greater or less
spending on particular public programs.
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Now what do you do?
After decades of gradual fee increases, the latest ‘deal’ struck by the UC regents to raise fees an unprecedented 32% has finally crossed the line. A world class education–essential for the success of yourself, your state, and your nation–is slipping away from California’s social contract.
Since realizing the inevitable last fall, you’ve walked-out, sat-in, and spoken-up. The outrage–real outrage–on UC, CSU, and Community College campuses is palpable. In fact, your reaction has received global media coverage. Of your massive protests last September, the UK Guardian first wrote of the “shock” it sent throughout the capitol, and then it described the students and faculty as “meaning business.”
So the die has been cast. The state of California has crossed the rubicon. Sacramento wants your education back.
What do you do?
You’ve blamed the UC Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees–suspicious of how readily they accepted the cuts and questioning of their compensation, you want answers. You’ve blamed the governor–for heaping the fallout of California’s colossal dysfunction onto the shoulders of its children, and for seeming aloof from the plight of California’s students. You’ve blamed the state legislature–for doing its best to undermine your education, and for allowing nearly every other function of the state to grind to a halt on its watch.
But something about these enemies doesn’t stick.
The regents and the trustees are only reacting to what’s coming down on them from the State Capitol, and their compensation alone doesn’t come close to closing the hole.
The Governor too is hamstrung. Even in good economic times, he and the legislature only control about 20% of the budget. The rest is ‘locked-in’ by the spending priorities and restrictions by the political movements of yesterday.
The legislature is a tempting target…but wait. Fees have increased during periods of Republican control and Democratic control; when liberals were in charge of the legislature and when conservatives were in charge; in good economic times and bad. You have every reason to believe that you will continue to receive less education for more money no matter who wins what election where or when.
No, the fee hikes, the layoffs, and the furloughs (like the IOU’s, the prisons, and the water) are bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and they are certainly bigger than either the regents or the board of trustees. For this reason, you and your fellow students have been visibly frustrated trying to find the right target for your wrath, the most effective avenue for your collective action.
Should you look to Sacramento? Today, at this very moment, the Capitol exists in a state of controlled-anarchy. Every lobbying firm and every interest group scavenges whatever it can from the public body; the feast has no strategy, no master plan, and no guiding principle. The beast has shown itself capable of devouring water systems, prison systems, roads, bridges, and the social safety net, and now its hungry for the greatest university system in the history of our species. The monster cannot be tamed or captured, and its gluttony is ravaging us all.
Then it hits. The problem is Sacramento. Your enemy is Sacramento.
What do you do? When who controls the legislature or the governor’s mansion has largely ceased to matter, and when the system and all its parts has become so fundamentally committed to destroying everything you love–from your parks to your health to your education–where do you turn? Do you tinker around the edges? No. You get a new system.
Last month, a coalition of advocacy groups called Repair California, finalized and submitted two ballot measures to do just that, by calling California’s first constitutional convention in 130 years. If the measures succeed at the ballot we would be enabled to scrap the old system and build a new one, one that learns from other states and reflects the California of tomorrow. No other reform proposal offers such an opportunity, not even close.
I don’t know about you, but I refuse to accept the status quo and what it’s doing to us. It’s time for us to seize our future. California needs you. This movement needs you. Visit http://www.RepairCalifornia.org.
Repair California has offered a limited Constitutional Convention as the best opportunity for the people of California to step forward and reclaim their state government. While the movement has the support of 70 percent of voters, as well as thousands of volunteers and many public leaders, some naturally express skepticism.
Constitutional conventions have been common throughout U.S. history, but California has not had one in 130 years. This extraordinary lapse of time without a serious citizen-review of government could understandably breed fear. Indeed, such trepidation accompanied the lead up to many of the 232 successful state Constitutional Conventions. For instance, in the 1963 black & white documentary of Michigan’s Constitutional Convention, held in that year, the narrator aptly summarized this unease:
“There had been fears the convention would be too conservative; fears that it would be too liberal; fears that it would be racked by politics…Pro-labor or pro-farmer or pro-business. Favoring the present, trapped in the past, lost in the future…”
Yet Americans are optimists with a propensity to overcome their fears and to emerge from trial and ordeal stronger than before – just as they did in 1963 Michigan, and just as they have done during each of the 232 state constitutional conventions in U.S. history.
Furthermore, a sober analysis of some of the most recent constitutional conventions demonstrates that these fears consistently fail to materialize. When reviewing recent state constitutional conventions it becomes clear that when given the chance, the American people see this venue as something beyond regular politics, and they seem naturally inclined to check partisanship at the door for the sake of carrying out the people’s business.
Constitutional conventioneers have proven particularly willing and capable of making the type of important compromises and decisions that commonly elude regular legislatures. The 1978 Hawaii Convention established term limits for state office holders, and required the legislature to produce an annual balanced budget. Delegates to the 1970 Illinois Convention actually took power from the state capitol and delivered it to local governments, closer to the watchful eyes of the voters. Michigan’s 1963 convention resolved the thorniest of issues: reapportionment for legislative districts.
The ability of delegates to agree on common-sense reforms is often explained vis-a-vis the fundamentally different incentives driving convention delegates vs. regular politicians. Among these are party politics, delegate demographics, and the unique nature of the constitutional convention venue itself.
First, constitutional convention delegates aren’t driven by re-election. As such, delegates aren’t burdened by the incentive to appease a particular party’s activist base, raise money or secure endorsements. For similar reasons, delegates have no electoral incentive to cower from important decisions.
Second, Constitutional Convention delegates are often “outsiders.” The Repair California delegate selection model brings in an equal number of experts and everyday Californians as voting delegates, but prohibits individuals who serve in a state-level elected office, their staff, lobbyists, employees or businesses that rely on state government. This mimics the approach of several states, including Montana. According to the official history of Montana’s 1971 Constitutional Convention:
“The delegates brought none of the acrimony and bitterness to the Convention that sometimes develops between seasoned politicians with preconceived positions on major state issues. Thus, the delegates were able to approach the principle issues before the Convention in an objective manner, and they also avoided a good deal of the pressures to which legislators are subjected. The probable unforeseen result…was a constitutional body relatively free from influence and dedicated to basic changes in Montana’s constitutional framework.”
Finally, conjuring images of powdered wigs and founding fathers and mothers, Constitutional Conventions occupy a special place in the American psyche; a place Americans have historically proven unwilling to spoil with partisan bickering and electoral posturing.
After describing the fears which had preceded Michigan’s march towards its 1963 Convention, the documentary went on to explain how Michiganders eventually reconciled their fears.
“The convention…was not an assemblage of angels. It was a convention of men and women. Taking the best it could agree on for our time and for our people…This was the process. Sometimes calm, sometimes not so calm. Either way, it was the people’s way. It was the way of a free democracy.”
THE California State Constitution is one of the oldest state constitutions still in use today; it’s 130 year history defined by revision, amendment and reform. The constitution’s long life, coupled with numerous partial-reform efforts, has resulted in what is today the world’s third longest constitution. With 512 amendments, the Constitution of California is eight times the length of the U.S. Constitution and has been criticized as “a perfect example of what a constitution ought not to be”1 and derided for being “more about legal technicalities than principles; an embarrassment for an otherwise cutting-edge state”.2
IN 1848 the United States acquired California from Mexico under the terms and conditions of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. When a gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill the following year sparked the famous California Gold Rush, the U.S. Congress acted swiftly to grant California statehood. Lacking an effective territorial administration for its rapidly growing population, California’s leaders were pressed to draft a workable constitution. With the backing of Brigadier General Bennett Riley, California’s military governor, 48 delegates convened a Constitutional Convention in Monterey. After final ratification, the delegates submitted the constitution to Congress and on Sunday, September 9, 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st State.
Heavily based on other state constitutions, the 1848 California Constitution proved inadequate to meet the long-term needs of the flourishing new state.3 Political leaders tried to amend the document via constitutional convention and the amendment process, however, during the 30 years which followed statehood, all three constitutional convention ballot proposals failed to win voter support and, of the many constitutional amendments proposed, only three became law. Finally, in 1877 the state legislature again submitted the question of convening a Constitutional Convention to the voters, this time it passed.
THE Constitutional Convention of 1878-79 produced California’s second constitution. Although technically surviving into the modern era, the document has done so weighted down with over 500 amendments and having been put through a 12 year revision process from 1966 to 1974. Although state constitutional conventions have been commonplace throughout U.S. history, the circumstances surrounding the 1878 California Convention resulted in features which would distinguish California’s constitution from other states. Convened amidst economic upheaval, the 1878 convention had an unusually strong focus on social and economic reform. As a result, whereas most constitutions limit themselves to detailing the broad legal principles on which future laws are to be made, the 1878 constitution instead addressed many subjects normally considered statutory in other states.4
In the decades after 1879, between its focus on statutory measures and legislative amendment, the California Constitution began to swell. California’s 1911 adoption of direct democracy through the ballot initiative and referendum gave citizens and interest groups the power to amend the constitution through individual initiatives. By 1930, the California constitution had grown to over 65,000 words (by comparison, the Constitution of the United States has about 4,500 words).5 The increasingly unwieldy nature of the document led to wholesale revision efforts, and on separate occasions in 1898, 1914, 1928, and 1929 the legislature put the question of a constitutional convention to the voters, where each time the measure was defeated. Finally, in 1935, voters approved convening a Constitutional Convention. However, in the midst of coping with the Great Depression, a convention was never convened.
Reform and Failure
FOLLOWING WWII, constitutional conventions surged in popularity as citizens sought to modernize obsolete and outdated state constitutions. Since 1945, Constitutional Conventions have been held in Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Rhode Island.
Meanwhile in California, in 1947 the state legislature authorized a Joint Interim Committee to draft a new constitution. They were to be assisted by an Advisory Committee which counted among its members two ex-governors, constitutional experts, and representatives from a variety of major political organizations and interest groups.6 With such an illustrious and knowledgeable group, real constitutional reform seemed assured. However, interest groups were able to limit the work of the committee to simply eliminating obsolete language.7 As it became clear the committee had no teeth, public interest faded. Although most of the Joint Interim Committee’s final recommendations were approved by both the legislature and the voters, the recommendations amounted to little more than reducing the constitution’s length by about 14,000 unnecessary words. Even with the cuts, by the late 1950’s the California constitution had grown to over 80,000 words with 350 amendments, making it the second most longest in the country.
In 1959, a body of citizen representatives called the California Citizens Legislative Advisory Commission turned its attentions to constitutional reform. The commission recommended (and voters eventually
approved) measures to empower the legislature to propose substantial constitutional revisions in addition to individual amendments. The legislature responded by appointing a new special body responsible solely for constitutional reform: the Constitution Revision Commission.
Over the course of almost a decade, the Constitution Revision Commission of 1964 to 1971 brought about some of the most substantial reforms of California’s constitution since the convention of 1878. The commission’s members included lawyers, educators, businesspeople, labor leaders, civic leaders, and others, along with a dedicated staff.8 Proposition 1-A, a key amendment element of the commission’s work, authorized major refurbishments of California’s system of governance. Voters accepted many other amendments drafted by the commission as well, addressing various constitutional improvements and simplifications. However, when it came to several particularly significant and controversial topics, such as budget reform and the amendment process, the commission found itself deadlocked between competing interest groups and was consequently unable to make significant recommendations. By the end of the process the Constitution Revision Commission, much like the Joint Interim Committee before it, had accomplished little more than reducing the length of the state’s constitution.
During the 1990’s Governor Pete Wilson appointed the second Constitutional Revision Commission. Convened at a time of economic recession, the bipartisan group had a specific mandate: examine the most controversial aspects of the constitution reform and suggest reforms. Pointing out that the state possessed more than 7,000 units of government and over 32 million residents, yet was governed by a constitution written when the population was closer to 800,000, the commission argued that major substantive constitutional changes were needed. In 1996 the commission released a list of constitutional recommendations aimed at improving accountability and responsiveness of government, eliminating barriers to efficiency and flexibility, and assuring that the state kept its fiscal house in order by maintaining a balanced budget. However, by the time the commission issued its final report California’s economy had recovered, the pressure to immediately act faded, and the commission’s work was ultimately neglected.
“The People’s Way”
CALIFORNIA’S financial system had become so fragile and so complicated that few expected it was capable of weathering a sudden crisis, such as deep and prolonged recession. The twin arrivals of the housing collapse and the banking crisis of 2008-2009, and the recession which has been left in its wake, has proved more than enough to bring California to the brink.
The scope of the failure has been spectacular. In April of 2008, even before the banking crisis was in full swing, the Governor announced a once-unimaginable budget deficit of $20.8 billion for fiscal year 2008-2009, which took Sacramento a record 80 days past the budget deadline to reconcile. However, after the budget’s eventual passage, Sacramento was immediately forced to grapple with the $24 billion projected 2009-2010 deficit, which immediately ballooned to $26 billion on midnight July 1st, on what has become the inevitable moment every year when the budget becomes past-due.
The collapse has reaped disastrous consequences on the state. At 11..6%, California’s unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest. Following California’s issuance of IOU’s to creditors to pay its bills, California’s bond rating was lowered to just above “junk” status. California’s public schools, once the nations best, long ago fell towards the bottom and are about to become even more crowded and even less well-equipped.
A May 2009 article appearing in The Economist magazine described California’s need for a new constitution as “both necessary and likely” and went on to mention the state’s thousands of overlapping government districts and marvel: it’s a “surprise anything works at all”.9 Today, calls for fundamental reform of the constitution have been revived amidst record deficits, record budget delays, and the state government’s record-low job approval rating. The system has proven incapable of reforming itself, and citizens have begun to explore ways to reform the system from the outside. When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked by the LA Times to comment on the push to call a Constitutional Convention, he called the effort “the only hope that I have”.10
Political dysfunction at the state level is not a new phenomenon. On numerous occasions throughout US history citizens of particular states have decided, when faced with such problems, to take the government back into their own hands. During the 1963 Michigan Constitutional Convention, Wayne State University produced what has since become a classic black and white documentary about American democracy. At the closing moments of “Michigan Can Lead the Way”, the narrator editorialized:
“There had been fears the convention would be too conservative; fears that it would be too liberal; fears that it would be racked by politics…Pro-labor or pro-farmer or pro-business…Favoring the present, trapped in the past, lost in the future. The convention had been all of these, it was not an assemblage of angels. It was a convention of men and women. Taking the best it could agree on for our time and for our people…This was the process. Sometimes calm, sometimes not so calm. Either way, it was the people’s way. It was the way of a free democracy.”
1 E. Dotson Wilson and Brian S. Ebbert. California’s Legislature (Sacramento: California State Legislature, Office of the Chief Clerk of the Assembly, 1998), 16.
2 Lascher, Edward. “It’s too easy to amend California’s Constitution.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times 4 Feb. 2009. 15 July 2009 <http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-hodson4-2009feb04,0,983208.story>.
3 Lee, Eugene C. “The Revision of California’s Constitution”. California Policy Seminar Brief, Vol. 3, No. 3. (April) 1991): 1.
4 Lee, Eugene C. “The Revision of California’s Constitution,” California Policy Seminar Brief, Vol. 3, No. 3 (April 1991): p. 1.
5 Lee, Eugene C. p. 2.
6 Lee, Eugene C. p. 3.
7 Hyink, Bernard L. “California Revises its Constitution”. The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3 (September 1969): p. 640.
8 Lee, Eugene C. “The Revision of California’s Constitution,” California Policy Seminar Brief, Vol. 3, No. 3 (April 1991): p. 4.
9 “The Ungovernable State”. The Economist, May 14th 2009. http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13649050
10 Goldmacher, Shane. “Schwarzenegger threatens to shut down state government.” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009. Accessed July 20, 2009. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jun/11/local/me-arnold-budget11
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WHEN motley crew political organizations from all over the state and political spectrum bring traveling town hall meetings to San Francisco, the civic minded would be well-advised to attend. Repair California is one of these crews, and last Tuesday they brought their push for a limited Constitutional Convention to The City by the Bay.
Composed of such seemingly disparate groups as The Bay Area Council, a business led-public policy organization, the Full-Circle-Fund and the Courage Campaign, an education advocacy group and progressive grassroots organization respectively, Repair California makes for an odd bird. Nevertheless, despite the very real differences between the interests these groups represent, two powerful forces have conspired to forge their unity: the complete collapse of California’s government and the strategic conviction that the situation in California has become so perilous they are willing to bet their time, energy, and yes, money, on the proposition that a representative sample of average Californians can do better.
At the risk of digression the following must be said. Tuesday night’s California Constitutional Convention Town Hall filled the PG&E auditorium to capacity and yet was about as anarchic as a Norman Rockwell painting (Complete video of the event here and here). This impression would have gone completely unnoticed if not for the rather caustic health care town halls currently underway across the country. The speakers addressed the enormity of the task before them with an eloquence matched only by the dignity of the evening’s participants, young and old, liberal and conservative, as they lined up to ask what were almost without exception well-thought-out insightful questions. This sentiment was echoed by Peter Schrag, former editor of the Sacramento Bee and longtime chronicler of California’s woes, who wrote on the California Progress Report, “What was most striking about the Repair California group and the people who’ve come to their meetings is that they seem both so ordinary and yet so thoughtful.” One couldn’t escape feeling it. This is the way town halls are supposed to go.
First at the podium was the Full Circle Fund’s Jeff Camp and his terribly depressing presentation on California’s public education over the past three decades. The cliff notes history of California’s public schools goes something like this. Until the 1960’s schools were funded almost exclusively through property tax revenues. “This worked great…” deadpanned Camp, “for wealthy communities”. The US Supreme Court eventually found this system violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and school funding was modified to be more equitable. Years later, proposition 13 completely reversed this system by amending the state constitution so that all property tax dollars would go first to Sacramento (and put through the legislative sausage making process) and then distributed back to the locals from whose pockets the money originally came. It should come as no surprise that, over time, fewer and fewer dollars were coming back. The challenge for Convention delegates would be to ensure that more powers of the purse are devolved back to local governments without leaving schools in poor neighborhoods to completely fend for themselves.
Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council, immediately began by recognizing that the same type of dire presentation on California’s schools could be done for the state’s responsibilities across the board: water, prisons, transportation, etc. After speaking at nearly all of these events, Wunderman spends little time describing the scope of the failure, apparently confident that Californians don’t need a weatherman to tell them its raining. Wunderman instead focuses his message not on why California should be reformed, but why a Constitutional Convention would be the best way to do it.
There are three ways to reform California’s government: through the legislature, through the ballot initiative, and through a Constitutional Convention. The first method, the “insider” strategy, has been completely disregarded by nearly everyone; the capitol is far too polarized to agree on any sort of meaningful reform, and politicians have precious few incentives to come to compromises.
The second option, the ballot, is deeply flawed for at least one big reason. California’s government is so broken, its problems so numerous, it would take “Proposition A-Z” to fix. Such a campaign would be prohibitively expensive, and interest groups which benefit from the status-quo could easily pick them off one-by-one. That leaves the Convention…
As of this moment Californians do not have the right to call for a Constitutional Convention. Only the legislature, through a 2/3 vote, can propose one. When you think about it, it’s a rather glaring deficiency for a system that supposes the people are the government. Repair California has therefore developed a “offer-voters-power-and-challenge-them-to-seize-it” strategy to push for two ballot initiatives: one to amend the constitution to give people the power to call a convention, and another to actually call the thing.
Stephen Hill, director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation, described the proposed idea of choosing delegates via a representative sample of Californians selected at random from a master list built from jury pools, the DMV, and voter registrations. “One thing I’d like to say about these citizen bodies is that they’re actually being used across the United States”. Hill referred specifically to the enormous New Orleans citizen-delegation which was convened to break through a political stalemate over the city’s post-Katrina rebuilding plans. The delegation was comprised of 4,000 people spread over 21 cities and linked by every facet of modern networking technology. “When you read about what occurred, it is truly impressive because they were able to find common ground”. Hill explained the surprising successes of this citizen-delegate model to the fact that delegates do not bring self-interest tainted by the partisanship and incumbency. “What you find is that when average people come together they check their partisanship at the door.”
Progressive activists, good-government watch-dogs, and business leaders…the breadth of Repair California’s coalition, already large, promises to become a colossus. And it better be, because the task is equally enormous. While California continues to loose its edge, you can bet that someone in Sacramento is winning big, and this entity is not going to go quietly into the night. As Schrag put it “The chore isn’t just to restructure the state’s dysfunctional system of government, but, as [Repair California] knows, to re-create citizenship in a state that now has much too little of it.” Such language tends to make Sacramento shudder. All the more reason to keep repeating it.