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California needs a constitutional convention

Only by starting over can we engineer a fresh start.

March 05, 2009|PATT MORRISON

Heck, yeah, California should throw a constitutional convention.

I love political conventions -- the open bars, the zany outfits, the gaudy, overpriced souvenirs. Eureka and party on, say I!

Oh, a constitutional convention isn't that kind of convention? It's supposed to be sober and ponderous? Says you. We could make it anything we want it to be.

But we'd just better make it good.

California's only begun to crawl out of the smoking wreckage of a five-car political smashup, and all of us were at the wheel. The budget disaster crashed into term limits and redistricting and our tax-and-spend habits and the simple bullheadedness of voters and the people we elect.

A constitutional convention -- assigned to rewrite the operating manual for the state -- could be the only way to fix the mess we've already voted ourselves into. Anybody who thinks that the budget standoff was a stellar example of democracy at work is either a masochist or a saboteur from New York.

Arnold Schwarzenegger wants a constitutional convention. Public policy wonks and worried budgeteers want one. The Legislature may not want one -- another reason to convene it.

At this point, we've been running on the same basic chassis we've had since Edison invented the phonograph.

We made it so easy to overload the vehicle of state with amendments that we have nearly 500 of them. The U.S. Constitution has 27, and it had about a 60-year head start on us.

California's Constitution is apparently the second longest in the country, after Louisiana's, and we all know what a model of governance Louisiana is.

Robert Stern probably wouldn't accept, but I'd think I'd give him the gavel at a constitutional convention. He's the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, and he makes it his business to think these things through.

"We should," he says, "be having such a debate every 10 or 20 years, not every 100 years."

At our first such convention, in 1849, 48 delegates put together a Constitution in six weeks. They wanted California to be a state, so they banned slavery. To entice more women to come here, they gave wives the right to own their own property. They banned anyone who had fought a duel with deadly weapons from voting or holding public office, and declared that no duly-made marriage contract could be invalidated for religious reasons.

Some Southern California delegates fought statehood because they didn't want to pay the taxes. And when the Constitution came to a vote, only 12% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. Haven't changed much, have we?

The second, convened in 1878, brought together farm interests, left-wingers and right-wingers, and what they did agree on was dis- empowering the Legislature, which meant the Constitution got longer and longer as it did the lawmaking work it took away from Sacramento.

The third convention wasn't a formal convention at all but the profound 1911 progressive reforms that gave us the initiative, the recall and the referendum.

Three major runs at getting it right: the founding of California, the reengineering of government in California and the reform of California.

A constitutional convention has the potential of deteriorating into a "Kumbaya" chorus or a knife fight. Most likely a knife fight.

A convention is, in the end, about redistributing power, taking it out of some hands and putting it into others. Everybody wants power, and nobody wants to give it up.

What should it address?

How about making it harder to amend the state Constitution and -- slightly -- easier to pass a state budget. Changing Proposition 13 to reflect the tax differences between commercial property and our homes. Making it easier to oust bullheaded lawmakers and keep the reasonable. In short, we need a constitutional convention to help us end the misrule of our own making.

Maybe it'll come to nothing. If all the requirements can be met and the hurdles surmounted, and a convention is called, it has to deliver on the right changes. And then those changes have to be put to the rest of us.

The convention could labor mightily and still, as Stern says, "possibly nothing will be approved by the voters." For my money, that would make us the first state to commit suicide by OD-ing on what we tell ourselves is democracy.

Go ahead, hold the convention. Can we at least all vote in favor of getting some cool souvenirs out of it?


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