At one point in a panel discussion Saturday at the Mission Valley Library, taxpayer advocate Richard Rider stood up and complained about the makeup of the panel, arguing that there wasn't someone more like him on it. Well, actually, his complaint was that there wasn't someone who was him on it. Apparently, he'd offered his services but was rejected. The public discussion was about California's structural governance and budgetary problems, and Rider's complaint gets to the heart of whether or not a proposed solution that's gaining momentum up and down the state can be successful.
The proposed solution is a constitutional convention, and it's being pushed by a group of corporate suits known as the Bay Area Council, which is spearheading a larger coalition called Repair California (www.repaircalifornia.org). They want to place on the November 2010 statewide ballot a two-piece initiative package. One proposition would allow voters to call for a constitutional convention—only the Legislature currently has that power—and the other one would go ahead and call for the convention. Convention delegates would then meet for a period of time, breaking into working groups to tackle various issues, then identify fundamental changes to the way California is governed. On the table would be big matters related to elections, the budget and the sharing of power between state and local governments.
There are folks who think such a radical effort isn't necessary, that all that's needed are a few changes that can be achieved at the ballot box, coupled with redistricting reform that's set to kick in after the 2010 census. They may be right, but we're skeptical. While we agree that it's possible to overstate California's governance crisis, there are enough obvious problems here to warrant what is, frankly, a very exciting exercise in democratic reform.
CityBeat has already articulated a need for a budget commission that would scrap (theoretically at first) all the rules that tie the Legislature's budgetary hands and start from scratch, building a budget that identifies the core public services, then determining a revenue scheme to pay for them, then recommending the changes to current law that would make it all work.
But we also homed in on the potential poison pill: the infestation of special interests, such as public employee unions, business trade organizations and anti-tax zealots. Opening the process to those “stakeholders,” as they're often euphemistically called, would kill anything meaningful, a recipe for the status quo. And that leads us back to Rider's complaint at Saturday's discussion. We'd worry, as Rider does, about the makeup of the delegates to a constitutional convention. It would work only if it were made up of a demographically representative cross-section of Californians. The Bay Area Council has thought of that. Their plan is to choose potential delegates at random the same way a jury is selected. A couple hundred people each would be selected from regions around the state (Senate districts would make the most sense), and each group would whittle its number down to 10 or so delegates. Certainly, there are traps everywhere: Would the people interested enough and able to commit the necessary time be representative of the population, or would they be a bunch of rich, old white people? How would the handful of delegates be chosen? Even if special interests are successfully kept out of the convention, won't they still be able to spend millions of dollars battling, at election time, whatever fixes the delegates choose? Yep. But given the need for a constitutional do-over, we're ready to watch this play out and cross those bridges when we come to them.
Look, you probably know the narrative by heart: California's the only state in the nation where it takes “yes” votes from 67 percent of the Legislature both to pass a budget and raise taxes. That wouldn't be so bad if legislators didn't have to cater to the far ends of the political spectrum. But they do, because of the way political districts have been gerrymandered—because districts are either safe for Republicans or Democrats, battles are waged in primaries, not general elections, resulting in ideologically pure lawmakers who have no political reason to compromise. And since less than 67 percent of the districts are safe for one party, the minority party has effective veto power—and therefore control—over the budget. Furthermore, the state's freewheeling initiative process has created utter chaos, and term limits have resulted in musical chairs in Sacramento and given much of the power to lobbyists.Yeah, we're totally down for a constitutional convention—and so are you.What do you think? Write to email@example.com