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Start from scratch

A constitutional convention is the best opportunity for the state to reclaim its purpose.

August 16, 2009

California has had two constitutional conventions. The first one, in 1849, produced a document that hustled Gold Rush territory into statehood before anyone had even figured out the state's eastern boundary (many residents of present-day Nevada and Utah believed they were Californians). The second one, in 1879, was a vehicle for racist xenophobes to deny people of Chinese descent the right to work for a living or vote in California. That convention produced the Constitution under which we operate today, now absent the racial provisions and modified by more than 500 amendments.

So if the state has had such dubious results from past constitutional conventions, what reason is there to believe that a third round of redrafting is the proper response to California's apparent inability to govern itself, balance a budget or plot a course for the future? Surely there is a better solution than a conference of ordinary citizens tasked with rewriting one of the world's longest and most complex constitutions.

Sadly, no. After years of ballot measures that undermine or eradicate one another, Californians must recognize that the third convention already is underway, and has been in session for more than three decades. It was called in 1978, when voters launched the property tax revolt with Proposition 13. New resolutions come to the imaginary floor of this virtual convention from the left, to create programs and capture funding (as with 2004's Proposition 63, which raised income taxes to fund mental health programs), and from the right, to limit governmental power and discretion (as with 1990's Proposition 140, which limited the time state elected officials could serve in office). But instead of being considered together, these resolutions are adopted one by one, resulting in a patchwork document with a self-negating message: Government must do more, and it must have less power and less money to do it.

A year ago, the Bay Area Council, a business and good-government group, proposed a constitutional convention in earnest. The idea horrified many Capitol observers. Haven't we already taken government away from thoughtful experts and turned it over to the populist rabble? Won't we just produce another mess like the constitutions of 1849 or 1879? Why stage yet another circus?

But that's the point. Our present rolling, never-ending, uncoordinated convention already has written California into the big top. It's time to end the circus and start fresh, with a new constitution by and for the people who use it and live with it. The Times thus enthusiastically endorses a state constitutional convention as the best opportunity for California to reclaim its stability and purpose.

Unlike standard initiatives, which can address only a single subject, a convention can produce a document in which competing interests are balanced. A single initiative to end the current rule requiring a two-thirds supermajority of the Legislature to adopt a budget may be doomed at the ballot box. But opponents are more likely to accept the change if they can keep the supermajority to increase taxes and are assured that future taxes will no longer be disguised as "fees." Or perhaps those adamantly against the supermajority requirement would reconsider if a majority of budget decisions are returned to local government. A convention does not guarantee success, and its work could be rejected by voters. But it makes possible a conversation instead of vicious partisan warfare.

Shouldn't the Legislature do this? Of course. But it can't. The hyper-partisan Legislature is a symptom of the very ill that needs to be cured. The best prospect of getting useful movement from lawmakers is political pressure -- the kind that a convention might produce.

Shouldn't this work be done by experts? Yes. But experts have proposed amendments that sit on shelves gathering dust. Today, a group of consensus-seeking reformers under the banner California Forward are promoting smart revisions that have a certain appeal across partisan and ideological lines. The urgency created by a convention makes those revisions -- and proposals from other groups -- more likely to be taken seriously. Besides, as foolish as it may be to romanticize the notion of ordinary citizens taking control of government, it is even more foolish, in a democracy, to assert that government is beyond the grasp of ordinary citizens.

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