Constitutional convention initiative moves toward ballot

'California is broken and we need a big fix to reboot it,' speaker says

SANTA ROSA – With voters becoming increasingly pessimistic about the direction of California, momentum is building for a new initiative to be placed on the November 2010 ballot to authorize a constitutional convention.

With voter approval, this would lead to the selection of some 150 delegates (one for each group of 250,000 state residents) who would draft a new constitution by 2011. If all goes as planned, an entirely new constitution could be in place by 2012, paving the way for major reforms in the state’s failed governance system.

“California is broken and we need a big fix to reboot it,” according to Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Ventures Silicon Valley and a member of Repair California, a broad-based coalition of Californians for a state constitutional convention initiated by the Bay Area Council dedicated to achieving reforms needed to get the state functioning again. “Everyone needs a more sophisticated understanding of our state’s problems.”

Some 18 months of work have already gone into preparations for a convention ballot initiative. On Oct. 28, Repair California sent two proposed ballot initiatives to Attorney General Jerry Brown for title and summary. One would authorize a constitutional convention, and another would call a convention, select delegates and begin the debate leading to a new document.

John Grubb, senior vice president for public affairs for Repair California, expects to obtain approval from the attorney general in December so the signature-gathering process can begin.  About 1.5 million signatures are needed to place measures on the ballot.

Speaking at the Nov. 4 meeting of the Sonoma County Alliance, Mr. Hancock reviewed challenges facing California and possible solutions that could result from a complete overhaul of the current 140-year-old, 75,000-word state constitution that has been amended more than 500 times.  “To continue to incrementally change this document won’t remedy the current crisis or serve as a long-term solution.”

He contrasted the state’s post-World War II prosperity and unprecedented growth up to the 1980s with today’s economic and fiscal woes. “In those days – fueled by defense spending, Silicon Valley and Hollywood – California’s economy was the envy of the nation, and we were our country’s dominant cultural and social trend setter," Mr. Hancock said. "This period of rapid growth built public schools, the U.C. system, parks, libraries, freeways and rapid transit plus a 70-mile waterway network. Land was cheap, and people had access to affordable housing.”

Today, he said, we are being overwhelmed by population growth that tripled from 10 million in 1900 to 37 million now, with projections for up to 60 million residents by 2060. He cited several examples of a failed governance system, including an overcrowded prison system with 150,000 inmates, a "weak" transportation infrastructure with few new roads that is failing to serve residents who now log more than 150 billion vehicle miles a year, a public school system that has gone from first to the worst in the nation, plus a major lag in improving the state’s water system.

“The real question is does California have good institutions and mechanisms in place to provide thoughtful solutions as well as statesman-like leadership to help take us where we need to go?" Mr. Hancock said. "We are plagued by dysfunction in Sacramento, within California’s regions and among the electorate, making it virtually impossible for lawmakers to reach the supermajority level currently required to pass a state budget.”

He cited four problem areas that could be addressed through a rewrite of the state’s constitution.

“Redistricting authority should be given to a nonpartisan commission and not be left to legislators. Open primaries would allow voters to vote for anyone during the primaries and the two highest vote-getters for each position would then appear on the general election ballot, regardless of party affiliation.” An open primary initiative is scheduled to appear on the June 2010 ballot.

Mr. Hancock and others believe that the state’s continuing budget gridlock could be remedied by relaxing the supermajority rule (66 percent) in favor of a simple majority vote (51 percent) for approvals.

“Term limits have actually hurt us.  We propose a 16-year maximum that could include service in any house or a combination of years served in elective office at the state level. This would give legislators time to develop expertise and establish relationships essential to garner consensus and get things done.”

Repair California is advocating a “pay as you go” policy to eliminate “ballot box budgeting” and ensure that legislative spending matches available revenues. All new bills would have to specify a source of funding, and budget surpluses would go into reserves with mandatory set-asides.

Some are concerned that there could be a runaway convention that would address issues and concerns people may not wish to change. “We propose that such a convention be limited to a discussion of how to govern the state and budget-related issues – not social concerns, gay rights, guns, etc.,” Mr. Hancock said.

Specifically, areas of governance that should be delineated include the budget process, the election and initiative process, the relationship between state and local governments and management of the state’s bureaucracy. Delegates would be barred from proposing any tax increases.

The issue today is the fastest way to achieve such reforms, according to Mr. Hancock. “We could enact all of these proposed solutions over time, but this could take 15 years or more. Or, we would convene a state constitutional convention to rewrite this document and make necessary changes in the near term.”

Significant population clusters seem to agree. In a poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted by EMC Research for Repair California last September, results showed that only 14 percent of those polled believe California is on the right track, while 77 percent believe the state is not.

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