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THE CALIFORNIA FIX

Constitutional convention? Not likely

No matter what the politicians promise, it appears the state will be stuck with the dysfunctional system that's making governance all but impossible.

February 21, 2010

Arnold Schwarzenegger could not do it. Neither can Meg Whitman, Steve Poizner, Jerry Brown or anyone else running for governor. And if Earl Warren or Pat Brown or Ronald Reagan or any other figure from California's past showed up tomorrow in Sacramento, they wouldn't be able to do it either. No one, however well intentioned, talented or charismatic, can adequately govern the state, given the complex web of demands and restrictions that are grafted onto the multi-volumed work that is the state Constitution. This election year will bring many promises about bold leadership and new ideas, but there comes a point in most democratic societies at which the machinery gums up and some of the most cherished hallmarks of liberty -- campaigning, voting, serving in office -- descend into mere ritual. That's when it's time to rebuild the machinery. It was the prospect of that that made the drive for a state constitutional convention so promising. And it's what makes the probable end of that drive, with this month's announcement by Repair California that it lacks the money to continue, so disappointing.

Leaders of the statewide coalition have said that if they can't get their fundraising back on track by March 1, they will abandon efforts to get their two convention measures on the November ballot. One would amend the Constitution to allow citizens to call a convention, and the other would actually call it -- and establish rules and criteria for selecting delegates and for seeing the work through.

Unless a deep-pocketed, status-quo-busting donor steps forward in the next few days, voters will continue rewriting their Constitution the old-fashioned way: with piecemeal measures that generally cater to the needs of the political establishment.

There is a painful irony at work. Ninety-nine years ago -- when Californians believed that their elected representatives had burrowed too deeply in the pockets of corporate interests and that the state had nearly lost all but the appearance of democracy -- voters staged a revolution and redesigned their Constitution. They gave themselves the right to pass initiatives at the ballot box, so that they could change the law without waiting for the Legislature to act; the referendum, so they could overturn lawmakers' work they didn't like; and the recall, so they could turn out an officeholder, for any reason or no reason, without waiting for the next election.

These three tools were used sparingly over the decades, but by the 1970s a new and powerful network of interests -- political consultants, attorneys, pollsters, paid signature-gatherers, major parties, candidates -- had co-opted those reforms. After Proposition 13 in 1978, initiative constitutional amendments began to clog state ballots. Their proponents needed to win over voters, but not reflective, thinking citizen voters. They needed reflexive, angry consumer voters, who would respond to the ballot appeal of the moment and then move on. Cut taxes? Yes. Spend more on education? Yes. Keep criminals in prisons longer? Yes. Fund new mental health services? Yes. Limit the time politicians can serve? Yes. Create a new child health program? Yes.

The result is a system in which elected officials have little power to do anything but dream up gimmicks to balance budgets and fund programs, and to ingratiate themselves to the same people who run the initiative industry -- because those are also the people, after all, who will help them or block them when it's time to seek a new office.

The prospect of a constitutional convention offered another way. Average Californians who otherwise would have been seasonal targets of the initiative campaigns would have gathered for a holistic look at our governance system. They would have devoted a year to consulting with experts and interest groups, studying what has worked and what has failed, finally drafting a new document with a good chance of being internally consistent and offering a framework for functional government. It would not have been the angry people, with their torches and pitchforks, against the government. It would have been the people creating the government. Voters would have heard the appeals of supporters and critics, and would have decided, in 2012, whether to adopt the document. Now, it seems unlikely that any of that will take place.

One of the many happy side effects of the Repair California convention effort is that it lighted a fire of sorts under other would-be reformers. Some of the movement's friendliest observers were the folks at California Forward, an effort headed by former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Automobile Club of Southern California Chief Executive Officer Thomas McKernan. They knew that lawmakers and their political advisors, spooked by the possibility of a wholesale revamping of state government, would increasingly turn to them as a more predictable alternative.

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