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.