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Dream big and take baby steps

A constitutional convention isn't going to happen, but real reform can -- eventually.

March 01, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — The dream about a historic state constitutional convention "reforming" California government was just that -- a fantasy. But the conclave's possibility served an important role: a prod on the Legislature to produce its own reforms.

Legislative leaders are about to unveil some bipartisan internal changes -- eye-glazing but potentially productive -- plus proposed restraints on the scourge of ballot box budgeting.

The tentative package includes two constitutional amendments that would be offered voters in November. One, by Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), would require any citizen initiative that creates new spending to also raise the needed revenue. That measure worries some Republicans, who fear tax increases.

The companion proposal, by Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), has wider support. It would require any initiative bond proposal that exceeds $1 billion to specify its funding source.

The goal is to shine a light on a ballot measure's cost and make sure it's covered.

But some big-ticket reforms -- such as lowering the Legislature's herculean hurdle of a two-thirds majority vote for budget passage and providing local governments with taxing flexibility to free them from financial dependence on Sacramento -- are much less likely to emerge from the Legislature because the drive for a constitutional convention stalled. There's less outside pressure.

The sponsoring Bay Area Council, a business lobby, couldn't -- or its megabucks members wouldn't -- raise the millions necessary to qualify two ballot measures that would have called the convention. Some potential bankrollers were comfortable with the status quo. Others feared a runaway convention or considered the whole idea impractical.

It's hard to raise money for wonkish reforms anyway, especially during tough times. What opens pocketbooks for contested initiatives is financial self-interest or heated social issues.

The convention effort isn't completely dead, but it needs a financial angel, and none is in sight.

The prod on the Legislature has been shelved, and that's too bad. But the convention movement wasn't going far anyway. California hasn't had such a confab in 132 years.

Even if the initiatives had been approved by voters and the convention called, "reform" could have been years away if it materialized at all.

Hundreds of citizen-delegates, most selected randomly and with little knowledge of government, would have been corralled into a hall and force-fed facts about the nuances of budgeting and federal-state-local relationships. Then they would have been asked to rewrite a big chunk of the state Constitution. Good luck.

As Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) puts it: "The schizophrenia that we have in the Legislature is reflective of the population at large. If that's happening out there, we're going to reflect it here. I think a constitutional convention would do exactly the same."

But say the delegates did agree on a constitutional overhaul. Voters still would need to approve it. And anything that colossal and consequential would present a chubby target for the many interest groups certain to oppose individual parts.

The only passable route to reform in this climate of polarized and suspicious voters may be incrementalism. That's being illustrated in Washington with the healthcare debate. And in the past, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has overreached on reforms.

"Unfortunately, when ballot initiatives are too long and too big, they just scare people," says former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, co-chairman of the reform group California Forward. "They're easy for the interests to kill. People would rather vote 'no' than 'yes,' especially in these times when they're so nervous.

"The only way you can do it is piecemeal. Take a simple bite at a time and do it over two or three elections."

California Forward, funded by foundations, has two ballot initiatives ready for signature-collecting. But, like the constitutional convention folks, Hertzberg hasn't been able to raise enough money. Time's running out.

So he's working with legislative leaders, trying to coax them into adopting Cal Forward's ideas and placing some on the ballot.

One ballot proposal would add discipline to budgeting and spending, and lower the budget vote to a simple majority. A second proposal would protect local government coffers from Sacramento and allow residents to raise the local sales tax with a majority vote.

But each measure requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. And Republicans are balking at the majority-vote pieces.

Legislative leaders have settled on some internal upgrades -- which might best be described as Do Your Job. They include a few Cal Forward concepts.

Policy committees would keep a sharper eye on state agencies, federal dollars and recently enacted laws. Legislators would be limited to fewer bill introductions. Priorities would be established.

Money would be allocated based on a program's effectiveness -- called "performance-based budgeting."

"This isn't flashy, but it could change the culture of the institution," says Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), who headed a Senate reform committee.

"To use a baseball metaphor, we should be trying to hit singles. The problem with term limits is everyone is so anxious to hit a home run every timethat they end up striking out."

Meanwhile, a labor-business coalition is sponsoring an initiative to relax term limits. Public employee unions are collecting signatures for a majority-vote budget measure.

An open primary proposal will be on the June ballot. Voters ended political gerrymandering in 2008.

A little here, a piece there. Pretty soon there's real reform, and without a nightmarish constitutional convention.


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