State seeking conventional wisdom on constitution

A soaring state budget deficit blamed on legislative gridlock has frustrated a coalition of business and civic groups who have rallied together to kick-start the process of rewriting the California Constitution.

The aim of the coalition, named Repair California, is to revamp the state constitution, which is partially blamed for the Legislature failing to pass a timely budget 22 times in the past 30 years. The process of rewriting the document, which spells out the functions of the state and how it’s run, is bold and faces numerous challenges.

“California has become the laughingstock of our country,” said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, which is spearheading the effort to overhaul the constitution.

The problems mainly are due to legislative gridlock resulting from the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass the state budget or raise taxes. California is one of three states — the others being the smaller and less diverse Arkansas and Rhode Island — that requires such a supermajority.

The California budget crisis recently reached historic proportions. Earlier this year, state agencies issued IOUs to pay bills. And it’s only getting worse: A recent report said the shortfall could grow to $21 billion by 2011 amid a steep fall in income tax revenue.

A recent Pew Center report on states called California the beacon of “fiscal peril.”

The report cites loss of state revenue, size of budget deficit, increasing unemployment, high foreclosure rates and legal obstacles to balancing budgets as principle reasons for California’s downward spiral.

“Specifically, a supermajority requirement for tax increases or budget bills and poor money-management practices” are some of the legal obstacles the state faces, the report said.

In response to the growing deficit and the frustration with lawmakers failing to fix the problems, the Bay Area Council launched Repair California.

The group filed language for two ballot initiatives Oct. 28. The first would amend the constitution to give voters the right to call a convention. If that passes, a second initiative discusses the details of putting together the meeting.

The specifics of overhauling the 130-year-old California Constitution, which is the third-longest in the world, is detailed.

One aspect of the revamp is doing away with the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget. But in addition, it also would try to reduce the influence of special interest groups on ballot initiatives. Restoration of the power between state and local governments would be aimed for, along with trying to make government more effective and efficient.

Such revisions would require the nation’s most populous and ideologically diverse region to agree on how to best reform a document that’s about 75,000 words; by comparison, the U.S. Constitution is 14,000.

“The damage our state government is causing by not acting on the crisis in our state — in our education system, in our prisons, our water system, our budgeting system, our local governments and our economy,” Wunderman said. “Well, it’s not funny. It’s tragic.”

Certain parts of the constitution would be off-limits for revision. The convention would be prohibited from proposing tax increases or considering changes to social issues such as marriage, abortion, immigration or the death penalty, Wunderman said.

Those in charge of rewriting the constitution would be regular citizens rather than the Legislature.

Enforcing the rules and overseeing the convention would be the political watchdog group California Fair Political Practices Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and controller.

But long before the rules of the convention can be enforced, the coalition must first turn in 1.4 million signatures supporting the two ballot initiatives, about 700,000 per measure, by April 16. That starts the road to the November ballot, when the future of the convention lies in the hands of the people.

“The changes need to happen,” Grubb said. “We are in the running to become the first failed state. One legislator [Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord] compares our constitution to the Winchester Mystery House; all these rooms were built without hallways connecting them.”


Random citizens will earn $116K for panel spot

If the proposal for a constitutional convention moves forward, regular citizens may be paid six-figure salaries to help rewrite the state document.

By searching voter and taxpayer lists and DMV records, 240 citizens — three per Assembly district — would be randomly selected to represent the state.

“We will pay the delegates the same amount as legislators, which is around $116,000 per year,” said John Grubb, spokesman for the Bay Area Council. The convention itself would cost $50 million to $75 million, council President Jim Wunderman said.

Another 220 delegates would be picked from among the state’s 58 counties — one for each 175,000 residents of that county — and chosen by a committee of five local government leaders — including supervisors, mayors and school board members — according to Repair California.

Four more delegates will represent federally recognized American Indian tribes.

Opponents of the plan say the selections could cast aside minority groups. Grubb said the council has developed a method to be inclusive.

“We worked with a lot of civil-rights groups to figure out the system,” he said.


Political, legal obstacles loom

The Bay Area Council’s growing movement to launch a constitutional convention has amassed plenty of high-profile supporters — including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — but some lawmakers and experts are skeptical that it will build enough momentum to work.

Schwarzenegger has called the effort “a brilliant idea,” saying the state should “give it a shot.”

The idea also has been endorsed by most declared candidates for the 2010 governor’s race, said John Grubb, spokesman for the Bay Area Council. A convention became a pivotal message in Mayor Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign before he dropped out of the race.

But experts say the effort will likely face a host of legal backlash.

For example, the Bay Area Council is attempting to call a convention via two ballot initiatives — one that would amend the constitution to allow a convention to be called by initiative and another to call it.

Since the California Constitution does not state a convention can be called by initiative — that it must occur via the Legislature — such a move will likely face legal challenges, said Timothy Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

“There are stronger arguments that you can do it this way, but not so strong that it would preclude litigation,” Hodson said during a recent panel discussion on the topic at UC Berkeley.

There also may be legal challenges concerning whether the selection process for the delegates tasked with rewriting the constitution would be fair to minorities, Hodson said. Though the Bay Area Council proposes delegates would be selected randomly, the state’s Voting Rights Act says state delegates are to be elected, he said.

Other critics point to the simple fact that a diverse convention would by nature be staunchly partisan, and thus less likely to succeed.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said a widespread public relations campaign that would encourage dialogue among Californians may be the best way toward realizing a convention.

At this point, she said, launching a convention might be premature since there hasn’t been enough dialogue to build a majority consensus on why we need a convention, and what direction to take should one occur.

“The public hasn’t engaged in that enough yet,” Skinner said. “If we launch into it right now, I’m afraid it might be doomed for failure.”


Hear ye, hear ye

A push for a constitutional convention in California is under way.

10: States that have had constitutional conventions since 1945

130: Years since California’s last constitutional convention

75,000: Words in California Constitution

14,000: Words in U.S. Constitution

$50M-$75M: Estimated cost of constitutional convention

512: Amendments to California Constitution

17: Amendments to U.S. Constitution

12: Length in years of California Constitution’s last revision process, 1966 to 1974

Source: Repair California


Making it happen

What it takes to hold a constitutional convention in California:

– Currently, a constitutional convention can only be called by the Legislature

– Fearing the Legislature will not call a constitutional convention, coalition Repair California filed two ballot measures Oct. 28 to empower the people to call a convention

First ballot measure: Specifies that call for a convention can be made through the initiative process

Second ballot measure: Officially calls for a convention and spells out rules and principals of convention


Steps necessary for constitutional convention

Oct. 28: Two ballot initiatives calling for a constitutional convention filed Oct. 28 with state attorney general; awaiting title and summary from attorney general

April 16, 2010: Must turn in 1.4 million signatures supporting ballot initiatives, about 700,000 per measure

November 2010: Ballot measures to be voted on by the people

2011: When constitutional convention would be held

November 2012: When delegates' reform package would be voted on by the people

Source: Repair California

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