A constitutional convention: Let’s stop and think it through

Californians are mad, and they have a right to be mad.

California government is dysfunctional, and we face a $24 billion budget deficit that our leaders seem powerless to deal with. Resolving it will require a Herculean effort and may have terrible consequences.

Many people say that every crisis is an opportunity. And that’s why, on a trip to the supermarket in the near future, you may be asked to sign a petition to convene a state constitutional convention. But going down that road could have far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences we may live to regret.

There are many different proposals for a constitutional convention. They may sound good on the surface because people have lost confidence in the Legislature. But as always, the devil is in the details.

The most discussed proposal is being backed by a business group called the Bay Area Council. As envisioned by the Council, some 400 delegates would be selected from Grand Jury pools across the state, under oversight from University of California chancellors.
Now, a constitutional convention might produce good results if we could be guaranteed that Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and people of their caliber were running it. But ask yourself,  do you think it is likely that 400 Jefferson and Franklin-like qualified leaders and policy experts will be selected from grand jury pools  by college administrators?

Take a minute. Think about the person you know – a relative, friend, neighbor, colleague – whom you disagree with the most. That person may well be in a jury pool and could be selected. Is that the person you want spending the next several months, and your tax dollars, deciding how California should be run? Do you want that person making rules you’ll have to live by on any number of different subjects?

If this convention is called, its delegates will be immediately besieged. They will immediately be swamped by every interest group representing every viewpoint out there. The pro-side and anti-side on every conceivable issue will try to bring their issue to the front and sway the delegates to their side. Convention advocates say they believe they can limit the subject matter to political reform issues. But what guarantee is there? Will they be able to limit the debate to certain issues, or will abortion, gay rights, immigration, the right to bear arms, offshore oil drilling and other controversial matters find their way in?

How about union rights?

It is entirely foreseeable that delegates chosen out of jury pools could be extreme anti-union nuts who’ll be determined to turn California into an anti-union, right-to-work state, bent on wiping out workers’ and unions’ hard-earned gains in wages, benefits, conditions, and health and safety. That’s just as likely as any other outcome given such an unpredictable scenario.

Do you want to take that chance?

Convention backers, mainly business interests, not surprisingly, say the state’s problems are so vast and numerous that they can’t be addressed one at a time.

But the truth is that all of the political reform measures being bandied about – such as open primaries, extending term limits, changing the two-thirds vote requirement – can be adopted by simply amending the constitution, not by completely rewriting it.

Yes we need reform. Certainly the two-thirds vote requirement for budgets and taxes has mired us in budget gridlock year after year, and has allowed an extremist and obstructionist Republican minority to bankrupt the state. So let’s amend the constitution to change that law. That takes a single ballot measure, and doesn’t require a convention that could also rob working people of decades of hard-earned gains.

There are ways to enact urgently needed reforms without scrapping the entire state constitution, and there is real, serious danger in setting up a scenario under which our vital worker protections, painstakingly won over decades, could be junked in a single blow.
A constitutional convention? Let’s be careful what we wish for.

When you’re handed that petition, just say “No, thanks.”

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