The Case for a California Constitutional Convention
It won’t be Philadelphia, 1788. But after the Golden State’s current fiscal oblivion, a constitutional convention could prove to be much more than simply the least-bad-solution.
“WHEREAS Mr. Dickinson foresees apocalypse” uttered an irascible and rotund Paul Giamatti, “I see hope”. Giamatti’s character then launched into one of the most powerful scenes of the award-winning HBO mini-series John Adams, convincing the congress at Philadelphia that Independence from Great Britain was not simply just, but fully within the realm of the possible. Abuse under the crown had matured Independence into something much more powerful than a right; it had become a duty.
Thankfully, California’s current predicament is not quite so perilous. (Understatement noted). However, like the patriots of Philadelphia, we too have reached a watershed moment in the Golden State, one we cannot afford to ignore. The government of the Great State of California is a failure. The only “moderate” position left is to pull-the-plug, pronounce it dead, and rewrite it from scratch.
BY ALMOST ANY RUBRIC, California is well-positioned to take advantage of the 21st century. We are the most energy efficient state in the union and the most diverse in both economics and ethnic makeup. We are a cultural icon, international destination, and oceanside paradise. We are home to world-class universities, cutting edge corporations, and the most “green” conscious people in the country; for leadership on global warming, the world looks to the US, and the US looks to California. However, far from a lubricant to prosperity, the organ of the state has become its chief barrier.
The exact culprits, however, are no mystery, nor are they even that complex; indeed, they can be counted with one hand. First, California’s budgetary procedure; Second, its political organization; Third, its relationship with local governments; and Fourth, its ballot initiative process. Four fundamental issues, simple as salt.
Perhaps no failure is as severe or as consequential as California’s bizarre and extraordinarily useless budget process. For a state that is as large as a medium-sized european nation (and unlike one in that it cannot print its own money), budget disorder can be catastrophic. Luckily again, the reason is not hidden: it takes a 2/3 vote of a deeply polarized legislature of novices (more on that later) to pass a budget.
The 2/3 budget rule is destructive. Historically, democracies have reserved supermajority votes only for matters of extraordinary importance and/or rarity, such as the amendment process for the US Constitution. The idea is to slow the people down before passions drive them to alter the fundamental workings of society. In contrast, could there be any other state function less extraordinary, less radical, and more routine than setting a budget? The budget process is treated like an amendment process, and the annual budget-battle significantly undermines the efforts of the state’s public and private institutions from making the sort of long-term strategic thinking needed to remain competitive in a globalized economy.
Critics will argue that the 2/3 hurdle is required to keep state-spending in check. This is wrong for two reasons. First, and most obvious, the 2/3 hurdle was patently useless in preventing our current crisis. Second, even the “reddest”, most fiscally conservative states in the union don’t have a 2/3 requirement. In fact, California is one of only three states to employ one. If it’s too strict for Texas, why in the world would we want it in California? The 2/3 rule is a useless means to restrain spending at-best, a threat to the state’s solvency at-worst.
Sensible budgetary reforms include replacing the 2/3 threshold with a 55% one, and by making the budget biennial instead of annual. The untold story of California’s mismanagement is that, because of the state’s size, budget battles consume most of the legislature’s time. Making two-year budgets would help free lawmakers to focus on other issues, like how to make the state more attractive to businesses and how to solve the state’s acute housing shortage.
California’s political structure produces ideologically extreme politicians who bear little resemblance to the populace at-large. Voters partially addressed this problem by passing redistricting reform on the 2008 ballot. Redistricting, however, will likely fall short of its promises because it doesn’t address the core problem, which is that the districts are extreme because primary voters are extreme. Since so many (about 25%) Californians are neither Democrats or Republicans, the two major parties are controlled by fringe activists which keep their crop of candidates ideologically “pure”, which in-turn keeps these moderate, decline-to-state voters out. Politicians pander and answer to the most extreme of the extreme. Surprise, surprise: the legislature is consumed with gridlock and a quarter of voters are effectively disenfranchised.
Division is one thing, but pettiness and partisan obsession quite another. An open primary system could fix this. It works by including all candidates from all parties on a single primary ballot. Voters would then vote for their favorite candidate, and the top two vote-getters would face off in a general election. This would force nominees from ideologically distinct regions to compete for moderate voters in ways they currently do not have to. An open primary would also promote competitive elections, even in truly “safe” zones, by allowing two members of the same party to face-off in the general election. In places like San Francisco, where GOP candidates haven’t a chance, this would help keep incumbents attentive to their constituents and engage more people in the process.
Again, it must be stressed this is not an extreme solution, nor is it a partisan power-grab. Seventeen states, from Hawaii to Mississippi, have some form of open primary. Judging from our current debacle, we would be wise to consider alternatives.
Finally, it must be stated plainly: the term-limit experiment has been a disaster. We have a state the size of a nation, governed by perpetual novices. And yet, no term-limits have ever been imposed on lobbyists, nor could they. The people’s representatives are hamstrung by the state’s draconian term-limits, and the main beneficiaries are the interest groups headquartered across the street from the capitol, in whose laps legislation now falls and whose presence is eternal.
Term-limit reform strikes at an even deeper key. When punishing one’s democracy, there comes a moment of truth when the punisher must decide whether or not he/she is still indeed a democrat at all. Despite the occasional frustrations, Churchill’s observation that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, still rings true. Democracy is a messy process with irreducible levels of corruption which are to be expected. But after three decades of abuse, it’s time to reinvest our efforts in improving our democracy instead of lashing it.
STATE-LOCAL FISCAL REFORM
When it comes to alternative energy, the biggest hurdle is a logistical one: How do you transport energy from where it is created to where it is consumed? The farther energy travels, the less of it there is when it arrives to its final destination. A similar problem afflicts state-local relations in California.
Locally cultivated revenues, like property and sales taxes, are transmitted first to Sacramento where they are subjected to bureaucratic and political extraction, and then sent back to localities to fund programs. If this sounds fishy, then you understand it perfectly. To make matters more complicated, because the state budget is always late, government entities like schools and police and fire stations have developed the tortuous ritual of annual lay-offs when the money runs out, followed by annual re-hirings when the budget finally passes. Hardly a liberal or conservative issue, this fiscal masochism screams for common sense.
BALLOT INITIATIVE REFORM
California’s ballot initiative was instituted during the progressive reforms of the early 20th century as a means for the people to bypass a legislature dominated by railroad interests. That the birth of the ballot initiative is so closely tied to “big rail-road” is pleasantly instructive: today, the former is properly used to the same extent the latter still even exists.
Because entrenched interests have adapted since its passage, the ballot initiative has been corrupted and co-opted by the sort of interest groups it was meant to circumvent. Too-few signatures are required to prevent any well-funded group from appealing complex issues to ill-informed voters, while the state has grown so much since its passage in 1911 that it’s still far-too-many signatures to be of any use to the average citizen. In addition, because the ballot initiative is so broad, voters can, and do, engage in citizen-budget-voodoo whereby they demand services while simultaneously refusing to pay for them. As a result, state government is a contradicting patchwork of rules, regulations, and priorities, which require an equally complex system of smoke and mirrors to maintain.
The ballot initiative is a cornerstone of direct democracy and should be preserved. But it must be reformed. Increase the signature threshold and require every measure which calls for spending to specifically cite where the revenue will come from. Make them answer: what will we tax, or, what will we cut? Good Government 101.
THE CALL for a new constitution is one that transcends ideological lines. The right of the people to change or abolish their government has no partisan monopoly, and a constitutional convention can be held in a way to prevent it from digressing into a partisan quagmire. Since the legislature is unlikely to call for a convention themselves, it’s up to the people to rally: by amending the current constitution via ballot initiative to allow citizens to circumvent a broken legislature (as the initiative was intended) and to directly call a constitutional convention.
The push for a California Constitutional Convention is neither drill nor pipe-dream. In fact, the momentum is on our side. Not only does it enjoy support from Governor Schwarzeneggar, but also from the Bay Area Council, the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause. It has been endorsed by the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as by numerous other op-Ed pieces in the LA Times and the Fresno Bee. The consistent failures of the state government have begun to threaten California’s citizens, businesses, and global standing. Luckily, in America we are the government, and per tradition, we have more than a right to abolish or alter that government when it fails, we have a duty.