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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. Garamendi called for "majority rule, plain and simple, on every issue." He also suggested extended term limits, and transitioning to a 120-member unicameral legislature to allow representatives to better represent smaller districts.
Other ideas for reform that got bandied about during the summit included reinventing election procedures and considering approaches such as instant-runoff voting, establishing proportional representation, changing the number of signatures needed to place an initiative on the ballot, and establishing an automatic review process for state agencies.
In order to hold a convention, California voters would have to approve two separate ballot initiatives. The first would create an amendment to the current constitution allowing voters to call the convention, while the second would call the actual convention. Both questions could be put to voters on the same ballot, according to the Bay Area Council. Any changes made to the constitution would then have to be ratified by voters.
The process of calling a convention is clear enough, but questions abound on how to proceed from there. For example, how would convention delegates be selected? How many would attend? How would the organizers ensure inclusiveness across ethnic, gender, and economic boundaries? Would the convention open up the entire constitution to debate, or would parties agree to narrow the scope to a few key issues? How would the convention itself escape the same gridlock that critics say has rendered the Legislature dysfunctional?
Without hammering out the fine points, it's hard to know whether the enthusiasm exhibited at the summit could survive the nitty-gritty details of actually going through with a convention. It's also too early to say whether progressives could emerge from such a process satisfied with the results.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the constitutional convention. "I wouldn't tell you at this point I'm enthusiastic about it because it could be too much blah-blah and not enough action," he told the Guardian. "I do definitely support budget reform I'm going to make that a priority and really want to look at the budget infrastructure, certainly the two-thirds majority. I think we need to deliberate on it and make certain that it wouldn't have any unintended consequences."
Sen. Mark Leno shared Ammiano's view that the two-thirds majority requirement tops the list of problems. "I think we could take some modest but profound steps before we open up an entire potential Pandora's box," he said of the convention idea. "I don't wish to dampen the spirits of our friends at the Bay Area Council. Their intentions are very good. But should it go forward, the devil will be in the details."
Goldberg took a similar stance. "The biggest problem is the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes and a budget," he told the Guardian. "If a constitutional convention is the way that issue gets resolved, that's positive. But the question is, how long is that going to take? How are they going to do it? There are so many unanswered questions that I would say, if that's the only way to deal with the two-thirds vote, let's do it."
Robert Cruickshank, public policy director at the Courage Campaign and a blogger with the political Web site Calitics.com, said he feels confident that a convention is a worthwhile pursuit for progressives. His organization conducted a poll of its membership to gauge whether there was progressive support for the idea, he said, and results showed that 92 percent of respondents supported it.
For his part, Wunderman emphasized the convention as a tool that could be used by voters rather than elected officials in Sacramento. "I'm excited about changing the game, changing the rules," he told the Guardian. "And I'm more confident than ever that if you lead Californians to revise their constitution, once they see it, they'll know what they have to do, and they'll do it. And the fact that it was them that did it will give rise to support for the product."