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California's Constitution: If It's Broken, Fix It

CALIFORNIA WATCH. One in an occasional series

September 12, 1993

Adversity can breed discontent, and if there is one salutary benefit of the current California malaise it is that it has bred discontent among some of our more thoughtful citizens that could lead to much-needed reforms.

In Los Angeles, discontent with the public schools has bred LEARN, the public-private partnership to reinvigorate local schools. It also has bred police reform, bred political ethics reform and bred the private-sector effort to invest in the inner city, RLA (Rebuild L.A.).

In Orange County, where money long has greased the wheels of politics and where lobbyists traditionally have been overly cozy with those in government service, there have been important new reforms undertaken in the areas of campaign financing and promoting tougher ethical standards for public officials and employees.

Now, in Sacramento, the spirit of reform rises again, as it has so often in this great and pioneering state. Voters know that state government hasn't been working as well as it should and, privately, the best and the brightest people in Sacramento will admit as much.

The big difference now is that voters blame politicians. But many politicians believe that, at least in part, the state Constitution is a major part of the problem.

THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM: Even before the great state budget debacle in the summer of 1992, when for weeks a budgetless state government was issuing so much funny money as promissory notes, it has been clear that something is very wrong in Sacramento. It is more than mere fatigue, more than undisguised resentment by angry career politicians over voter passage of term limits, more than even the sudden and brutal downturn in the state's economic fortunes.

No, the sense is that the basic structure of state government is not right, that California--once thought of as perhaps the most politically innovative of polities--has sunk into ossified torpor.

As state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti suggested a few months ago, the scope of the problems has become so enormous that nothing less may be needed than major change in the state's system of government.

THE NATURE OF THE REMEDY: The Constitution of California is very long compared to the national Constitution, and many experts argue that it is not only too long and too detailed but also at least partially antiquated.

They argue that California has been plagued not only by a deteriorating economy but also by a deteriorating government structure--for instance, divided government with legislative majorities of one political party and chief executives of another; campaign finance laws that ensure protection of the status quo; a complex Constitution made overly long and rigid by an initiative process that allows for added amendments.

The argument is that state leaders need to look at the California Constitution, ask some very hard questions about it, compare it to reforms in other states and other democracies, and put recommendations to the voters. Among the questions that need to be asked: Would the state be better off with a unicameral Legislature? A parliamentary as opposed to federal presidential model? Different rules for the state Legislature, like a simple majority for approval of the budget? A system of two-year budgeting?

THE PROCESS OPTIONS: One method of achieving that broad-based review is to convene a constitutional convention, which is what California last did in 1877 and sought unsuccessfully to do in 1897, 1913 and 1919. Some leaders are arguing that a full-scale constitutional convention is needed now, most notably former state Sen. Barry Keene (D-Ukiah).

However, there is considerably more support in Sacramento for establishing a Constitution Revision Commission--which was last done during the 1960s--instead of a convention. In fact, in 1992 just such a proposal passed both houses of the Legislature: So manifest was governmental gridlock it was one of the few major issues both houses and both parties could agree on that year.

Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed that bill, but Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego) reintroduced the measure, which has made progress in the Legislature, and the governor is now said to be more favorably disposed.

No surprise. Serious politicians of both parties know they owe it to posterity to act on their instincts; and their instincts tell them that right now California just isn't working. This is why a key committee vote is scheduled this week that could launch just such a landmark commission onto the fast track.

The Times strongly supports a comprehensive review of the state's Constitution and major reform of the state initiative process. A State Constitution Commission, staffed by public-spirited citizens with nothing more than California's best interests in mind, would draw up a slate of constitutional reforms designed to make the state's political and governmental system work better. After approval by the Legislature, the voters would get a chance to vote on the reforms.

If carefully drafted, those reforms could inject new energy and life into California politics, and leave future generations with a better system of state government.

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