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California needs a state constitutional convention

Rebooting Sacramento by rewriting the state's Constitution seems to be the only way to move beyond financially broke and politically broken.

May 21, 2009

California is stuck. Schools are about to lay off teachers. Prisons are about to release inmates. Historic assets are on the block. Initiatives confuse. Revolts fail. No amount of electing and reelecting people who promise to fix things seems able to move us forward. It's time to reboot.

There have been calls for months now to convene a state constitutional convention and, in essence, start over. It's a good idea. The state Constitution runs to two fat volumes in print and is padded each year by new voter initiatives or legislative propositions. In the end, it's just a document. It's not the enemy. But retooling is one necessary step to make the state function better.

Of course, all kinds of things can go wrong. How would delegates be picked? Would unions control a convention, or union-busters, or Proposition 8 advocates or opponents? A poorly structured convention or one populated by self-interested fringe delegates could do more harm than good. Every care must be given to the details, and it is essential to include in the initiative that authorizes a convention -- alas, there must be a ballot measure -- restrictions on what it would be allowed to address.

One benefit: A convention could push the Legislature to accept deeper, more far-reaching reforms than it might otherwise. One provocative notion being floated by the reform group California Forward would devolve decision-making on taxing and spending back to counties and cities, realigning the relationship between state and local government. In another year, lawmakers might scoff at the prospect. Fear of a convention may encourage ingenuity.

The Bay Area Council, which is leading the charge for a convention, has put "proportional representation" in the Legislature at the top of its wish list. Interesting choice. We're curious to see whether voters already angry at Tuesday's barely comprehensible ballot measures will embrace something quite so cutting-edge.

No convention -- in fact, no statewide fix -- will work if it consists simply of one interest group's shopping list. The Times has made no secret of its position against the two-thirds legislative threshold for tax increases and budgets, and we will keep pushing to overturn it. But the point is to get more ideas on the table.

Prepare for the season of reform and reinvention. A tax reform commission is to release its report in July. Political parties and candidates will focus on next year's gubernatorial election. It's not time to back away from government; it's time to engage it, and change it. Over the coming weeks and months, this page will not be shy about asking questions and offering suggestions. Bring on the ideas. Bring on the convention.

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