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Taming the California beast

So many problems, so many competing interests -- only rewriting the Constitution will do.

September 20, 2009

It's not always easy to identify the tentacles that are strangling California and keeping it from fulfilling its promise for 38 million residents. Who wrecked our public school system, which was once the envy of the world? Who ruined the nation's premier network of highways, the most ambitious and reliable water delivery system, the best state parks? Who killed the spirit of opportunity and innovation that once made California the headquarters for banks and oil companies, for makers of surfboards and electric guitars, for computers and communications?

Even if we can't identify the culprit, people here intuitively know that some kind of monster has wrapped itself around the Golden State. Well over two-thirds of registered voters said recently that they would vote yes on two key ballot measures to pave the way for a constitutional convention to wrest back control of the state for Californians.

The numbers were compiled by a pollster for Repair California, a coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum that believes a convention is the best way to make the state work again. The group has set Friday as its deadline for submitting ballot language to the attorney general. If current numbers remain strong, voters would call a convention in November 2010. The convention would take place the following year, and a constitution would go to voters for an up-or-down vote in November 2011.

But once the convention is called, then what? It's easier to agree on a fix if there's agreement on who, or what, the monster is.

Once, it was easy. Reformers and demagogues of the 1870s argued that California was being strangled by twin demons: Chinese immigrants and the Central Pacific Railroad. Anti-Chinese provisions were grafted onto California's second Constitution in 1879. But reformers believed things were still awry, and increasingly, they identified the enemy as the Central Pacific's successor, the Southern Pacific. As the state's biggest corporate presence, the railroad selected the candidates who ran for office and bought their votes to assure control over any attempt to regulate freight rates or impose taxes. As one of the state's largest landowners, it ruled agriculture and water.

The Southern Pacific became known as the Octopus, to describe the numerous corporate tentacles that worked their way into the statehouse, the voting booths, the farms, the cities. An 1880 land dispute between the railroad and settlers that grew violent and resulted in several killings became the basis of the 1901 Frank Norris novel "The Octopus: A Story of California." The Southern Pacific's nickname stuck.

To break the railroad's iron grip on the Capitol, Progressive era reformers wrote, and in 1911 voters adopted, constitutional amendments to allow for the initiative, referendum and recall. The Southern Pacific might still have been able to bribe lawmakers into doing its bidding, but Californians now had a way to fight back. They could overturn bad laws, pass new ones and throw out politicians they believed were not serving their interests.

By 1996, when the Southern Pacific was absorbed by its ancient rival, the Union Pacific, the railroad Octopus was long dead. But there is a new multi-armed monster, more pernicious than any outside corporation ever was.

One tentacle belongs to public employee unions. Although Californians should reject the foolish notion that there is something intrinsically destructive about workers in public service, it is undeniable that their unions have gained enormous clout in Sacramento. They have the influence to select Democratic Party primary candidates in urban areas, and the money and foot soldiers to ensure their election. Then, at contract time, those unions sit across the table from officials they put in office -- officials who realize they are bargaining with people who have the power to end their careers. The greatest barrier to affordable and sensible prison reform has been the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. -- the prison guards union. Ballot measures are made or broken by the California Teachers Assn.

Another tentacle belongs to big business. Less powerful, perhaps, than when the Southern Pacific ruled the state, business interests nevertheless exercise a remarkable degree of clout through lobbyists. Disgraced ex-Assemblyman Michael Duvall (R-Yorba Linda) may have just been telling stories earlier this month when he described trysts with a business lobbyist, but it's hard to distinguish between his supposed antics and those of lawmakers all too anxious to get, well, close to big-moneyed business interests.

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