Voters’ angst fuels look at constitutional convention

Disgusted, demoralized and disenchanted, Californians are fed up with their political leaders – that much is clear. What isn’t so clear is what to do about it. One possibility is a constitutional convention, the first in California in 130 years, where hundreds of delegates chosen from among the citizenry would rewrite the constitution and submit their plan to voters. Everything would be on the table – term limits, the two-thirds vote, ballot initiatives, spending caps, redistricting, the Legislature itself.

Fasten your seat belts, this could be a bumpy ride.

“The biggest single risk is to be careful what you wish for,” said veteran political strategist Darry Sragow, who has handled Democratic campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate. “Who knows what interests will weigh in? It could be wonderful and invigorating, it could be an unmitigated disaster.”

But California voters appear interested in taking the chance.

After 10 statewide elections in 5 ½ years, including three statewide special elections that began with the 2003 recall, a feeling is emerging that California is governed by an incompetent governor and an even more incompetent Legislature. That view was buttressed on May 19, when voters rejected an array of dubious ballot measures – all blessed by the governor and legislative leaders — that sought to reduce a short-term budget shortfall by $6 billion, order a long-term spending cap and temporarily extend a statewide sales tax. It was only the latest set of budget-linked measures that political leaders asked voters to resolve. In a November 2005 special election featuring an array of special interest measures, voters faced eight ballot propositions, including one limiting school spending. The year before, voters in a regular election were asked to decide four propositions directly tied to state budgeting.

In effect, voters were being asked to tackle some issues that could have been resolved by the Legislature and governor through negotiation. But the hyper-partisanship of the Capitol and the structure of governance – the requirement for super majorities on taxes and the budget, for example – and the need to ask voters to undo what they earlier had done has left voters angry and tense. In the background lurk severe job loss, a painful real estate market, an interminable recession, a disengaged electorate and uncertainty for the future.

“At the end of the day, voters would rather see wholesale, well-thought-out constitutional reform,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord. “If it (reform) comes from the Legislature or the governor, voters will be highly skeptical. I have long been of the belief that if reform is going to happen, it’s going to have to come from outside the building (the Capitol).”

 DeSaulnier has authored a constitutional amendment, SCA 3, that would let voters decide in November 2010 whether to call a constitutional convention.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said Wednesday that a legislative group – either a task force or a legislative conference committee – would begin meeting soon to discuss all types of legislative reforms. “We must simulataeously figure out how to close this budget deficit and look at a number of reforms,” Bass said.

Under current law, the constitutional convention is a two-step dance: Voters decide whether they want one, then the Legislature approves enabling legislation that sets it up. Constitutional conventions are a rarity in California. The first was during the fall of 1849 at Monterey, when delegates wrote the state constitution and created the structure of state government. A year later, California became the 31st state.

The second was in Sacramento, in the chambers of the Assembly, in 1878-79. Some 152 delegates, selected through elections mounted by the organized parties of the day, convened in Sacramento in September 1878 and met for 127 working days. Ultimately, the 1849 document was largely rewritten. The result was a new constitution with 22 Articles, which have been heavily amended ever since. The Legislature didn’t meet while the convention was in progress.

The most visible of the efforts for a third constitutional is being mounted by the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business coalition.  

“For 60 years, our organization has partnered with Sacramento to get things done. But now Sacramento is no longer a partner. It’s a stumbling block, it’s a place where ideas go to die,” said Council spokesman John Grubb. “Water crisis, prison crisis, health care crisis, transportation crisis – everywhere you look find a crisis and the common thread is state government.”

Fourteeen states have automatic constitutional convention referenda in which voters periodically decide whether or not a constitutional convention should be called.

The Council wants to place two propositions before voters simultaneously in November 2010 and shorten the two-step.

The first proposition would amend the constitution to authorize voters to directly call a constitutional convention, and limits the calls to once a decade. The second would actually call the convention, and it would provide the details of the meeting.

As envisioned by the Council, some 400 delegates — five from each of the 80 Assembly districts — would be selected from Grand Jury pools across the state, with management from the state auditor. A top-level team from the University of California would oversee the process. “The chancellors and president would be sort of a ‘Rules Committee,’” DeSaulnier said. If history is any guide, the convention would probably meet for two to three months at a site to be determined. One possibility is Asilomar in Monterey, another is Sacramento.

The Field Poll shows three out of four California voters disapprove of the Legislature’s performance – a record low in the nearly three decades that Field has tracked legislative performance. The same poll showed that only one in three voters approved of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s job skills. Those negative views are even more virulent among the Capitol’s cognoscenti.

The trigger for even considering the convention clearly is the state’s financial picture. But the proposed convention is all but certain to draw legal challenges, and already concerns are emerging.

“There is a serious question about what kind of people you would end up with as delegates,” said Tony Quinn, a political historian and co-author of the Target Book. “The 13 colonies assigned the best and the brightest to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, which is how we wound up with people like Jefferson and Madison, instead of 300 people picked out of the Virginia telephone book.”
But the larger legal issue is the constitutional revision vs. constitutional amendment. A revision is a major restructuring of the constitution. An amendment changes a piece of the constitution.

“That’s the key question,” said Quinn, who also serves as a consultant for another political reform group, California Forward, which is financed by nonprofit foundations.  “A constitutional convention is clearly going to revise the constitution, but voters only have the power to amend the constitution.”

But the Council said its proposals pass constitutional muster, and that whatever opposition arises likely is to come from entrenched powers in Sacramento who have the most to lose if the existing system changes.

“We’re getting support from all sides, from taxpayer groups, from the Orange County Lincoln Club, from the Courage Campaign,
from the governor, local governments are saying positive things,” Grubb said.

“There are three stages to this. The first is, people say, ‘You’re crazy, go away.’ The second is, ‘Hey this is pretty interesting, tell me more.’ And the third is, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

But the uncertainty remains, in spades.

“This is uncharted territory, this is incredibly complex and incredibly important. In seriously considering a constitutional convention, everybody has to realize that they are taking a Scrabble board and upending it. They are throwing all the tiles on the floor,” Sragow said.

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