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Reform Issue Passes to Legislature

Constitutional change must not die in that bitterly partisan arena

May 30, 1996

The California Constitution Revision Commission ended its labors Tuesday by turning aside efforts to unravel the consensus it had painfully built over the last two years. But if the commission has "done what it can do," as chairman William Hauck said, its policy reach nevertheless was, no surprise, much longer than its political grasp.

The reforms that the commission has approved include making appointive some currently elective state offices, including treasurer, insurance commissioner and schools superintendent; relaxing term limits; reforming the costly initiative process, and allowing some exceptions to Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that cut property taxes. If enacted, these will be major reforms. But state lawmakers must first agree to put the package before the voters as constitutional amendments. Finding agreement in the bitterly partisan Legislature will be a longshot.

The major dislocation that gave rise to the commission in 1993--the growing gap between government responsibilities for programs and the revenues to fund them--remains largely unaddressed. The commission punted on the issue, agreeing only to ask each county to create a commission to consider local reforms.

Just getting city and county officials to join study panels and talk with one another about their many common problems would be an accomplishment that could create momentum for more substantive reform. But even this tepid approach was opposed by some commission members and is likely to be resisted even more strongly in the Legislature.

Legislators tempted to register opposition should remember that the commission was not engaged in some abstract academic exercise. Those who think otherwise need only reflect on recent news stories in Los Angeles: the county's underfunded health system on the brink of collapse; county jails so overcrowded that inmates must be released while a state-of-the-art jail stands empty for lack of operating funds; per-student spending and reading scores in California schools among the lowest in the nation.

Solutions to these problems do not always mean higher taxes, as many conservatives fear. But they do require restructuring the relationship between the state and the local governments. Only a new relationship will lead to a reliable source of funds to administer mandated programs and will provide state and local agencies the ability--and the incentives--to work cooperatively and smarter.

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