Californians Ready for a Constitutional Convention

The best
idea coming out of Sacramento these days is actually coming from the Bay Area, where a group of business leaders wants to
call a constitutional convention to revamp California’s government.

The governance equivalent of a quintuple bypass and
deep brain stimulation surgery performed at the same time, a constitutional
convention is a notion that should send shivers down the spine of any
reasonable person.

It slices
open the body politic and exposes its vital organs to all sorts of poking and
prodding.

Scary stuff.

On the
other hand, what do we have to lose?

In
fairness, it’s not accurate to lay all the financial blame at the feet of the
Legislature when 49 other states are going through the same issues. California’s just happen
to be bigger because of the size of both the state and of its loftier real
estate bubble.

Current
crisis aside, though, the state’s system of governance doesn’t work no
matter who’s trying to govern and under what circumstances. That was obvious
before the most recent meltdown. Events of past few months have created an
image in sharper relief.

  • The requirement that
    budget legislation pass on two-thirds votes literally had the Assembly and
    Senate in lockdown over Valentine’s Day weekend. And then things got
    ugly.
  • Term limits — six years in the Assembly, eight in
    the Senate — put a premium on political showmanship over the craft and the
    art of compromise. “Deal” might be a four-letter word, but it
    isn’t always a dirty one.
  • Any special interest that can gather enough
    signatures — or can afford to pay enough to have signatures gathered for
    it — can create a new state program via initiative, regardless of whether
    there’s any way to pay for it or not.

Traditional
thinking held that the only way to change any of that — except for piecemeal,
one initiative at a time — was for two-thirds of the Legislature to agree to
call for a constitutional convention. The likelihood of that happening is even
smaller than the chances legislators will meet a budget deadline.

The Bay Area Council,
though, thinks it has a workaround: Take the issue back to the beginnings, to
the people.

Council President Jim Wunderman
unveiled the idea in an
op/ed in the San Francisco Chronicle
back in August. The proposal got a
boost this week when Gov. Arnold Scharzenegger endorsed it.

The
council believes calling a convention could be as simple
as two initiatives
appearing on the same ballot. One would change the
Constitution to allow citizens to call a convention. The other would then call
the convention.

The
organization’s polling indicates
the time might be right. According to a
survey the council commissioned last month of 800 likely voters, 82
percent believe the state is headed in the wrong direction. That perception has
grown progressively stronger since the council’s first poll in February 2002,
when a mere 41 percent thought the state was off track.

While
only a few of those polled — 23 percent — had heard about the possibility of a
constitutional convention, when voters were given information about the issue,
52 percent said they would vote “yes” if asked if one should be
called. Support was strong across all age groups and both genders and in all regions
of the state.

It sounds
like the people are ready to speak.