Op-Ed by Jim Wunderman in the San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, August 21, 2008 - California's government suffers from drastic dysfunction - our prisons overflow, our water system teeters on collapse, our once proud schools are criminally poor, our financing system is bankrupt, our democracy produces ideologically extreme legislators who can pass neither budget nor reforms, and we have no recourse in the system to right these wrongs. Drastic times call for drastic measures.
It is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. Therefore, are we not obligated to nullify our government and institute a new one?
Those were the rights and responsibilities that Thomas Jefferson wrote of in the Declaration of Independence, stating that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed and that whenever a government becomes destructive to the governed, it is a people's solemn right and duty to alter or abolish it.
Our state's founders gave us the tool to take this step - with a constitutional convention. We can either be led to a convention by our elected leaders in the Legislature, who, as fed up as we are, can authorize a convention with a two-thirds vote, or we can bypass any gridlock in Sacramento with a "citizen's constitutional convention." Changes from either would go on the ballot for a majority vote.
As rash as an act as this might seem, this is not unchartered territory. Nearly 30 years after the state was founded, California received a new government from a constitutional convention. We also had a California Constitutional Revision Commission from 1964-1976 and the voters approved and codified the commission's revisions in separate pieces in 1966, 1970, 1972 and 1974. Jefferson also cautioned that governments should not be changed for light and transient causes. So let us consider the seriousness of the ills and their relationship to the Constitution. California is the only state that has not passed a budget this year. While the budget battle rages, no other legislative matter gets real attention, despite an armada of problems requiring state attention - water, education, roads, prisons, health care, housing, economic policies and more. If this were a rare occurrence, then we could look the other way, but it has happened 18 of the past 22 years! The chief reason is that only Rhode Island, Arkansas and California have a constitutional requirement of two-thirds legislative budget approval, which in California is nearly impossible. Republicans contend this threshold is their only check on Democrats' profligate spending, but if Democrats do overreach, more Republicans would be elected. Likewise, some states pass two-year budgets, freeing at least one year for pure legislative work, but California's Constitution prevents such sensible practice.
California's primary system and gerrymandered Assembly and Senate districts, both parts of the Constitution, consistently produce candidates from the ideological extremes. In such an atmosphere, party orthodoxy rules all, and crossing the line to compromise is political suicide. For this reason, real, desperately needed change is blocked at every turn, and only bills like regulating tanning booths actually escape alive.
California's system of taxation and spending is almost entirely hardwired into the Constitution. It produces wildly fluctuating revenue booms and busts that put state services on a cruel feast-or-famine roller coaster that drags the poor, the elderly, children and even the business community along for the painful ride. Similarly, local funding is hogtied to the state's, forcing our cities and counties to suffer as well from outdated laws in the Constitution. California's bureaucratic red tape is legendary, reflecting nothing of our 21st century economy, culture and society.
That is because so many state agencies, boards and commissions have been placed forever in our Constitution. Texas actually has a Sunset Commission in which nearly all of its 150 agencies are automatically abolished after 12 years, unless legislation is enacted to continue them. Alas, our state Constitution prevents this, too. California's Constitution was always meant to be a living document that could adjust to the times. The time has come to make serious adjustments. As Jefferson would remind us, this is not just a right, it is a patriot's solemn duty.
Jim Wunderman is the president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.