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Californians Ready for a Constitutional Convention

by Indy, published

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.

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