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Total Recall

The push for a constitutional convention in California.

4:20 PM, Mar 6, 2009 • By KEVIN VANCE
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The sun may be setting on the sunshine state. California narrowly averted a crisis with an 11th-hour budget compromise on February 19. Last Friday, on the same day Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for a three-year drought, it was reported that the state unemployment rate crossed the 10 percent threshold--one of the highest rates in the country. The state education system, once one of the best in the country, now ranks near the bottom.

Eighty-two percent of Californians believe their state is on the "wrong track," and Schwarzenegger can boast of a disapproval rating that rivals George W. Bush's in his final year in office. Apparently, some Californians have had enough. They're ready to start from scratch--with a new state constitution.

On February 24, several good government groups met in Sacramento to discuss various proposals and new polling that seems to indicate that voters are cautiously supportive of a constitutional convention. Two days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Schwarzenegger himself supports a constitutional convention.

While the state's problems are legion, the cause of many of them is connected to the polarization of the state's legislature. Though political parties are weak in California, the legislative districts are gerrymandered in such a way that almost every one of them is heavily Democratic or heavily Republican (but mostly Democratic, of course). Candidates usually need only to appeal to the most liberal or most conservative elements of their district in order to win the primary and, almost by default, the general election.

This has produced a state legislature that is considerably more liberal than the average voter. In the rare circumstances that require a supermajority vote, such as the recent vote to approve a new budget, the inability of far right Republicans and far left Democrats to compromise has the potential to bring the state to a standstill.

Under the current constitutional framework, a two-thirds vote of the state legislature and a majority vote of the state's electorate is necessary to call for a constitutional convention. Since it is highly unlikely that the current batch of politicians in Sacramento will call for a convention that aims to replace them with more moderate members, pro-convention groups plan to use the initiative process to call for a constitutional convention. One initiative will give voters the authority to call for a constitutional convention by a majority vote, and its twin initiative would call for a convention.

The Bay Area Council, the business group leading the charge for a constitutional convention, has floated several ideas for potential constitutional reforms. They'd like to change the two-thirds threshold to a 55 percent majority for budget approval, which would have prevented this year's budget crisis. John Grubb, a spokesman for the council, told me that they would only support the change if the constitution included spending limits on the legislature. The Bay Area Council would also like the legislature to approve the budget in two-year cycles, with the legislature meeting every other year to focus only on policymaking.

Another major reform that they would like to see is a sunset commission for state bureaucratic institutions. This reform would be modeled after a Texas provision that sunsets every statewide board after 12 years unless the legislature takes action. In California, new boards and commissions hardly ever go away, which has created a giant state bureaucracy.

In 2008, Californians very narrowly approved Proposition 11, which severely curtails the power of California's politicians to define legislative district boundaries. A citizens' commission will now approve boundary decisions, with required approval from some of the Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan members of the commission. The benefits of this ballot initiative will kick in after the 2010 Census and should fix most of the structural problems caused by political gerrymandering in California.

Nevertheless, some of the reformers would like to make a constitutional provision for an open primary, where the top two vote getters in the primary election face off in a general election, even if they're from the same party.

As part of the budget compromise, Schwarzenegger actually promised Republican state senator Abel Maldonado that voters will have a chance to approve an open-primary on the June 2010 ballot. A referendum on the open primary may have the effect of slowing the momentum for a constitutional convention in favor of more piecemeal reforms--the same thing that got California into the mess it's in today.