The Golden State's extreme makeover - Page 5

California isn't working any more. It's time to think about dramatic ideas for change
The "State of Jefferson" seal

Another stab at fundamental reform — this one keeping California intact as a state — is beginning to look like it will move forward. It's fascinating (and a bit scary).

The Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based group of business CEOs, says it's working in everyone's interest by rallying support for a statewide convention that would open up California's constitution for debate. The council organized a summit this past February to stimulate dialogue around the idea (see "Blaming the System," 3/4/09). Since then, Schwarzenegger has publicly voiced support for a constitutional convention.

"The state government is no longer our partner in getting anything done," says BAC spokesperson John Grubb. "It's such a place where ideas die that it's created this incredible stasis. Any solution is better than just letting things sit as they are." Another problem, in Grubb's view, is extraordinarily low approval ratings — about 14 percent — for the state legislature. "When you get to that point where the leadership has that little trust, does democracy even function? We would argue that, no, it is no longer functioning in our state. So we need a new system."

It's not just business doing the talking. Jacobs, the liberal Courage Campaign founder, echoes this idea. "We have to press 'reset,'<0x2009>" he says. The Courage Campaign is one of many groups partnering with BAC to move forward the effort to hold a California Constitutional Convention.

Of course, opening the Constitution can be a frightening prospect — once you go in that direction, all sorts of special-interest nut cases might try to insert their causes. But everyone involved agrees that social issues (like abortion and civil rights) should stay out of the discussion. The priorities, Jacobs said, should be "No. 1 — the way the government works. No. 2, the initiative process. Three, term limits." For progressives, he says, the goal will be "engaging the progressive movement that has taken hold in this country so we can have our state back."

Hill says the New America Foundation's idea of regional delegations and proportional representation is going to be part of the discussion: "If that's not on the table," he said, "then I'm not even interested."

The Council expects to fork over around $25 million for each of two November 2010 ballot measures that would ask voters two things: whether they should be empowered to call a convention, and if such a convention should be called. There's also the uphill climb of gathering 1.6 million signatures, an expense that works out to around $2 a pop, Grubb says.

But the council feels it's worth the investment. "Every day of budget delay costs $40 million," Grubb points out. "So two days of budget delay pay for what we're trying to do here. These things are relative."

Mark Paul, senior scholar and deputy director of the California program at the progressive New America Foundation, voiced support for the idea. "The voter anger and apathy that marked the [May 19] special election are signs of the governing paralysis California has inflicted upon itself through decades of piecemeal, incremental reform," he said. "The people want government to work but have made normal functioning impossible. Only by rethinking our constitution can California hope to get out of this self-imposed bind."

Not everyone is thrilled with that concept, though. "I can see a constitutional convention becoming a free-for-all, with every interest group trying to capture the process," Cain said.

He's also not so excited about the mandate for major reform. "We get into an economic crisis, and everyone starts to talk about change," he said. "Then by the time we get around to looking at our serious problems, the economy recovers and we all forget about it." ------------ P>ARE TWO (OR THREE) CALIFORNIAS BETTER THAN ONE?

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