The following article calls for a constitutional convention to update the constitution of the state of California. This would be a worthwhile effort if the objective is to strengthen and reform the direct democratic institutions enshrined in the constitution rather than an opportunity for opponents to weaken them and try to trun back the clock on California's tradition of Initiative & Referendum. - Editor
By Larry N. Gerston
Article Launched: 08/15/2008 01:31:57 AM PDT
The latest California state budget flap reminds us that our constitution no longer works. The governing process in California is broken - not temporarily disabled or momentarily off track, but broken - and the only way to fix it is with a constitutional convention.
For some time, people have sensed a system gone awry, and they've tinkered to make things function.
The Progressives brought "direct democracy" a century ago to take power away from interest groups, yet interest groups have come to dominate the initiative and referendum processes. The electorate made the Legislature a full-time body in 1966, so instead of avoiding big decisions for 90 days every other year, it avoids big decisions year-round.
Some people thought we could improve the quality of legislators by creating term limits in 1988, which has only given more power to bureaucrats and lobbyists. We've passed more than 500 adjustments since our constitution's adoption in 1879 (compared with 27 changes in the U.S. Constitution), but these piecemeal efforts have failed to make California more governable.
When you think of how California has changed, it's understandable. Massive transportation corridors have replaced wagon trails, huge water conduits have taken the place of individual wells, and towns have blended into urban behemoths sometimes more than 100 miles long. Education, once a privilege for the few, is required for all.
We need a constitutional convention to look at California with 21st century eyes. In attendance should be a large group of people, perhaps 200 or 300, who should create a comprehensive document for state governance, and then present it to the voters.
The stakeholders should include representatives from businesses, organized labor, farmers and environmentalists, taxpayer groups, civil libertarians, some elected officials, and yes, a few (not too many!) academics. The constitutional convention should hold hearings across the state for ideas.
Here are a few ideas that should be on the table:
• State finance. What kinds of taxes should be collected and for what purposes? Which interests should get tax breaks and why? How easy or hard should it be for citizens to determine their own taxation?
• Checks and balances. What's the appropriate threshold for passing legislation and responding to a governor's veto? (Hint: No governor has had a veto overturned in more than 30 years.)
• Organization. Now that legislative districts are organized by population, is it wiser to move to a unicameral or one-house Legislature with smaller districts?
• State/local relationships. What public policy areas should be assumed by the state, and which should be assumed by local governments? And how can we help the two levels work together?
• Direct democracy. What's a reasonable threshold for qualifying an initiative for the ballot? And should the Legislature consider the topic before it goes to voters?
There are many more issues to consider. The point is simply this: California's patchwork quilt of reforms has frayed beyond repair. Our elected officials may come to office with noble ideas, but the system discourages them from governing. The public suffers from their political impotence.
Organizing a constitutional convention will be costly and time-consuming. There will be conflict and finger wagging. But if we bring enough thoughtful people to the table, we should be able to create a vast improvement over the present product. Let the debates begin.
LARRY N. GERSTON teaches political science at San Jose State University. His "California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach" (with Terry Christensen) will be published in its 10th edition in January.