Blaming the system

A call to rewrite the state's constitution is met with support — and questions
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rebeccab@sfbg.com

The Grand Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sacramento was buzzing Feb. 24 as some 400 conference-goers representing myriad geographies and political perspectives gathered in one room to tackle an enormous question: should California's constitution get an overhaul?

Hosted by the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group, the summit introduced the idea of staging a statewide constitutional convention that would grant Californians the opportunity to make major revisions to the state constitution and streamline the government reform process.

The council hopes to place a measure on the ballot as early as November 2010 to ask voters if a convention should be called. If the effort gets a green light, it would mark the first time in 130 years that a meeting of this kind was convened in California.

The state's government is dysfunctional, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters opined during the summit. Full of stakeholders with disparate viewpoints who are too often unwilling to collaborate, he said, the Legislature either tends to roll out "unworkable monstrosities" or have its efforts stalled by a small number of representatives who disagree with the majority. "The problem isn't really which party is in charge," he said. "It's the fundamental structure of the government."

The summit attracted diverse interests ranging from Chevron Corp., an icon of big business in the Bay Area, to the Courage Campaign, a left-leaning political organization cast in the mold of Moveon.org. Despite being divided on other issues, all parties seemed to be in agreement on the main point that California's government is desperately in need of a fix.

"I think of the government in California as being like the Winchester House — you keep adding rooms, but there are no corridors," Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) joked at the summit, referring to a historic mansion in San Jose renowned for its monstrous size and complete lack of a floor plan.

The idea for holding a convention was first floated last summer, when Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman published an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "California Government Has Failed Us." Wunderman struck a nerve, and organizations such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters signed up to partner with the business group to launch the constitutional convention effort. Clamor for government reform got louder still in recent weeks, as a disapproving public witnessed legislators sink into a debacle over the budget deal.

An arduous budget debate further intensified when it came to extracting the last vote needed to achieve the required two-thirds majority. The Democratic majority wound up negotiating with Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), who turned his vote into leverage to force concessions on his own demands. Maldonado was able to single-handedly eliminate a proposed 12-cent increase on the gas tax, and he stipulated that an initiative be placed on the May ballot for an open primary.

"The budget was held hostage to right-wing ideology when the people of the state were demanding a real solution to a real problem," says Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Association and the owner of a lobbying firm. "For example, the only way they could get the votes was to give away huge corporate loopholes."

The lesson learned? "We have tied ourselves in knots with the two-thirds vote requirement," declared Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a moderate Democrat and gubernatorial candidate, spurring a round of applause at the summit.