California needs a state constitutional convention: Rebooting Sacramento by rewriting the state's Constitution seems to be the only way to move beyond financially broke and politically broken.
Editorial from the Los Angeles Times
May 21, 2009 - California is stuck. Schools are about to lay off teachers. Prisons are about to release inmates. Historic assets are on the block. Initiatives confuse. Revolts fail. No amount of electing and reelecting people who promise to fix things seems able to move us forward. It's time to reboot.
There have been calls for months now to convene a state constitutional convention and, in essence, start over. It's a good idea. The state Constitution runs to two fat volumes in print and is padded each year by new voter initiatives or legislative propositions. In the end, it's just a document. It's not the enemy. But retooling is one necessary step to make the state function better.
Of course, all kinds of things can go wrong. How would delegates be picked? Would unions control a convention, or union-busters, or Proposition 8 advocates or opponents? A poorly structured convention or one populated by self-interested fringe delegates could do more harm than good. Every care must be given to the details, and it is essential to include in the initiative that authorizes a convention -- alas, there must be a ballot measure -- restrictions on what it would be allowed to address.
One benefit: A convention could push the Legislature to accept deeper, more far-reaching reforms than it might otherwise. One provocative notion being floated by the reform group California Forward would devolve decision-making on taxing and spending back to counties and cities, realigning the relationship between state and local government. In another year, lawmakers might scoff at the prospect. Fear of a convention may encourage ingenuity.
The Bay Area Council, which is leading the charge for a convention, has put "proportional representation" in the Legislature at the top of its wish list. Interesting choice. We're curious to see whether voters already angry at Tuesday's barely comprehensible ballot measures will embrace something quite so cutting-edge.
No convention -- in fact, no statewide fix -- will work if it consists simply of one interest group's shopping list. The Times has made no secret of its position against the two-thirds legislative threshold for tax increases and budgets, and we will keep pushing to overturn it. But the point is to get more ideas on the table.
Prepare for the season of reform and reinvention. A tax reform commission is to release its report in July. Political parties and candidates will focus on next year's gubernatorial election. It's not time to back away from government; it's time to engage it, and change it. Over the coming weeks and months, this page will not be shy about asking questions and offering suggestions. Bring on the ideas. Bring on the convention.
A CALIFORNIA CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION: Despite what the pundits say, such a effort isn't the answer to the state's structural problems. It would take too long, be complicated and controversial, and likely lead to a dead end.
By Erwin Chemerinsky – Opinion From the Los Angeles Times
May 28, 2009 - Since the defeat of the budget initiatives on May 19, the pressure has been mounting for a constitutional convention to deal with the state's underlying structural problems. As California plunges further into fiscal crisis, this newspaper and others, as well as pundits across the state, have endorsed the idea. But I believe it's a false hope.
My experience as chairman of a similar convention -- an elected commission created in 1997 to propose a new Los Angeles city charter -- makes me skeptical that a constitutional convention can provide a solution to the serious problems that face the state.
It's not that I disagree about the roots of the crisis. The California Constitution is deeply flawed and desperately needs revision. The requirement that the budget as well as any tax hikes must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature ensures legislative gridlock and is a large part of why the state is now in such desperate financial shape. The overused initiative process has led to a host of unfunded, voter-passed programs that distort the state's spending priorities. Term limits have robbed the Legislature of experienced leaders and legislators.
But is a constitutional convention the best path to a solution? Even if there is a constitutional convention, and even if it does come up with a coherent and meaningful package of proposed changes, it's uncertain that that package would ever be adopted. There are countless controversial issues that could doom it. For example, if the revised constitution protects a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians, a significant number of voters will oppose it on that basis alone. But if the new constitution does not protect a right to marriage equality, others will vote against it for that reason. The same impasse could arise over abortion rights, affirmative action or benefits for undocumented immigrants.
Even if the constitutional convention were narrowly limited to issues related to the state's fiscal problems, this difficulty would not go away. For example, Proposition 13, which limits property taxes, has a greatly distorting effect on the state's tax structure, and I would certainly argue that it should be repealed or, at least, reformed. But simple politics tells us that a proposal to repeal Proposition 13 would be enormously controversial and could doom any constitutional reform. The same goes for repeal of the two-thirds requirement for passing budgets.
Such controversies are unavoidable. That is why several efforts at charter reform were defeated in Los Angeles before there was finally approval of a new charter in 1999. And in order to ensure passage, the charter that was ultimately proposed had to stay away from some essential reforms, such as increasing the size of the Los Angeles City Council. Even a modest increase from the current 15 council districts was seen as likely to doom the whole proposal.
Moreover, during the charter reform process, there was no consensus on any issue concerning the structure of city government. Then-Mayor Richard Riordan had his views, City Council members had theirs, the city attorney and city controller had theirs, business groups had theirs, unions had theirs, homeowners had theirs, and so on. Many of these stakeholders had the power and resources to defeat any proposed new charter if they chose to.
The result was that everything had to be a careful compromise. But a compromise document can go only so far in providing innovative solutions to serious problems. For instance, an impasse over the role of neighborhood councils was only resolved after we drafted fairly ambiguous provisions that created a weak system.
Rewriting the state Constitution will also take time. First, the voters must approve a constitutional convention at the ballot box, and then the convention's delegates must be selected. They will need a significant amount of time to study the issues and to begin to draft the new constitution. When and if they finish battling over what their proposal should be, it would need to be approved at the polls. That could take years -- and frankly, the state needs a faster solution.
I have no real objection to a convention. I just don't believe we can count on it to solve our problems -- and certainly not in a timely fashion. Therefore, even if convention proponents continue to move toward establishing one, action must still be taken now to address California's most serious problems.
For example, an initiative should be placed on the ballot as quickly as possible to eliminate the two-thirds requirement for passage of the state budget and of new taxes. Only two other states in the country have such an antidemocratic requirement, and it is an enormous obstacle to responsible budgeting. The current crisis hopefully will provide the impetus for passage of this reform. But if such an initiative cannot get approved, there is little reason to believe that a new constitution that includes this change could get approved either.
No one in California can deny the seriousness of the state's problems or that the California Constitution needs major revision, if not replacement. But it is unrealistic to pin hopes on something that is so difficult and time-consuming to achieve.
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the law school at UC Irvine.
California needs a constitutional convention: Only by starting over can we engineer a fresh start.
Patt Morrison | LA Times Columnist
March 5, 2009 - Heck, yeah, California should throw a constitutional convention.
I love political conventions -- the open bars, the zany outfits, the gaudy, overpriced souvenirs. Eureka and party on, say I!
Oh, a constitutional convention isn't that kind of convention? It's supposed to be sober and ponderous? Says you. We could make it anything we want it to be.
But we'd just better make it good.
California's only begun to crawl out of the smoking wreckage of a five-car political smashup, and all of us were at the wheel. The budget disaster crashed into term limits and redistricting and our tax-and-spend habits and the simple bullheadedness of voters and the people we elect.
A constitutional convention -- assigned to rewrite the operating manual for the state -- could be the only way to fix the mess we've already voted ourselves into. Anybody who thinks that the budget standoff was a stellar example of democracy at work is either a masochist or a saboteur from New York.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wants a constitutional convention. Public policy wonks and worried budgeteers want one. The Legislature may not want one -- another reason to convene it.
At this point, we've been running on the same basic chassis we've had since Edison invented the phonograph.
We made it so easy to overload the vehicle of state with amendments that we have nearly 500 of them. The U.S. Constitution has 27, and it had about a 60-year head start on us.
California's Constitution is apparently the second longest in the country, after Louisiana's, and we all know what a model of governance Louisiana is.
Robert Stern probably wouldn't accept, but I'd think I'd give him the gavel at a constitutional convention. He's the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, and he makes it his business to think these things through.
"We should," he says, "be having such a debate every 10 or 20 years, not every 100 years."
At our first such convention, in 1849, 48 delegates put together a Constitution in six weeks. They wanted California to be a state, so they banned slavery. To entice more women to come here, they gave wives the right to own their own property. They banned anyone who had fought a duel with deadly weapons from voting or holding public office, and declared that no duly-made marriage contract could be invalidated for religious reasons.
Some Southern California delegates fought statehood because they didn't want to pay the taxes. And when the Constitution came to a vote, only 12% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. Haven't changed much, have we?
The second, convened in 1878, brought together farm interests, left-wingers and right-wingers, and what they did agree on was dis- empowering the Legislature, which meant the Constitution got longer and longer as it did the lawmaking work it took away from Sacramento.
The third convention wasn't a formal convention at all but the profound 1911 progressive reforms that gave us the initiative, the recall and the referendum.
Three major runs at getting it right: the founding of California, the reengineering of government in California and the reform of California.
A constitutional convention has the potential of deteriorating into a "Kumbaya" chorus or a knife fight. Most likely a knife fight.
A convention is, in the end, about redistributing power, taking it out of some hands and putting it into others. Everybody wants power, and nobody wants to give it up.
What should it address?
How about making it harder to amend the state Constitution and -- slightly -- easier to pass a state budget. Changing Proposition 13 to reflect the tax differences between commercial property and our homes. Making it easier to oust bullheaded lawmakers and keep the reasonable. In short, we need a constitutional convention to help us end the misrule of our own making.
Maybe it'll come to nothing. If all the requirements can be met and the hurdles surmounted, and a convention is called, it has to deliver on the right changes. And then those changes have to be put to the rest of us.
The convention could labor mightily and still, as Stern says, "possibly nothing will be approved by the voters." For my money, that would make us the first state to commit suicide by OD-ing on what we tell ourselves is democracy.
Go ahead, hold the convention. Can we at least all vote in favor of getting some cool souvenirs out of it?