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Constitutional Convention Gathers Momentum

By Jeff Hudson - February 27, 2009

A curious assortment of elected officials, think-tank-based policy wonks, frustrated business leaders and government reformers gathered on Tuesday at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento for a self-styled “California Constitutional Convention Summit,” to contemplate the possibility of a dramatic overhaul of state government.

Motivated in large part by legislative gridlock in Sacramento, and the deteriorating condition of the state’s finances, highway system, and public schools and universities, the summit focused on the idea of convening a state constitutional convention — something that hasn’t happened since 1879 — to revise the way government works.

One likely goal of such a convention would be to remove the requirement for a two-thirds majority to pass the state budget. But many other ideas were floated as well.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (who’s running for Governor in 2010) proposed abolishing the Assembly and State Senate, and replacing them with a single-house “unicameral” legislative body, comprising 120-some seats, each serving a smaller district that Assemblymembers and Senators currently serve.

Speakers also raised ideas like extending (but not entirely abolishing) term limits on legislators; modifying the initiative process (perhaps by increasing the number of signatures required to put a proposition on the ballot); abolishing the current system of 58 counties, and creating a new system of somewhat larger regional governmental agencies; and dramatically revamping the way local government agencies and school districts are funded.

Columnist Dan Walters, of the Sacramento Bee, specifically raised education as an example of what’s wrong with the way California government is organized.

“Does anyone in this room know who is in charge of public education in California?” Walters asked rhetorically. “The Governor? The Governor’s Secretary of Education? The State Superintendent of Public Instruction? The State Board of Education? The Legislature? The County Superintendents? The answer is that everyone’s involved, and because everyone has input, everyone has a piece of the action,” Walters said. “But no one is truly responsible for the outcome, truly accountable for what occurs. It’s a wonderful system for passing the buck.”

Taking a historical perspective, Walters suggested that “Our founding fathers could never have envisioned California, as densely populated as it is, with ethnic groups, and an economy diffused among several industries. I maintain that California is the most complex and diverse society in the history of mankind. There’s never been a place like this place.”

But since California operates under a governmental system designed in the 1800s, “on any given issue, there are myriad stakeholders that represent the diversity of the state,” Walters said. “And when you try to bring those stakeholders together, you find that you don’t just need consensus, you need unanimity. Because the stakeholders can use the system to stop anything from happening.”

Pollster Dave Metz (of the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Assoc.) described results of a recent survey that found a significant degree of openness to the idea of a constitutional convention among likely voters — and an even higher degree of interest among non-voters, of whom there are millions in California.

Metz also said that very few people have a clear idea of what a constitutional convention might entail — a point that was also brought up by Mark Paul of the New America Foundation, who said that for many Californians, the idea brings to mind “a lot of people in white wigs sitting in a room,” an image that he stressed would have little relationship to what would actually occur if a convention were held.

Several speakers observed that the capacity crowd at Tuesday’s summit (which overflowed into an adjacent room) was largely white, largely male, and largely from Northern California. Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, gently but firmly suggested that constitutional convention advocates would be wise to network with the state’s growing Latino population, as well as the black and Asian constituencies, since whites no longer comprise the majority of California’s population.

Michael Capaldi, chairman emeritus of the Orange County Lincoln Club, likewise said that advocates of a constitutional convention should seek input and participation from political conservatives.

Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council (representing business interests) said he hoped governmental reform could help California better address problems like decaying highways, and an education system that was once regarded as the best among the 50 states, but now ranks as one of the poorest-funded.  (The Bay Area Council hosted the Tuesday summit.)

Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin told EdBrief after the summit meeting that she’s interested in the idea of a constitutional convention as a means of shoring up funding for education.  But Eastin who served four terms in the Assembly, didn’t like Garamendi’s suggestion of a unicameral legislature, saying she thinks there are advantages to the check and balances of the bicameral system.

There would probably be two steps involved with calling a constitutional convention. First, voters would be asked to approve a ballot proposition amending the current constitution, to give voters the right to call a constitutional convention. Then, if that proposition were approved, a second proposition would go before voters to call the convention.

The summit featured discussion — but no clear consensus — about who might participate in the convention. Should delegates to the convention be elected, or picked through some sort of “jury pool” process? Should currently serving elected officials be participants in the convention? And to what degree should the agenda of a constitutional convention be limited and defined? These and other questions would have to be resolved before a convention could be held.

While many details about a possible constitutional convention remain fuzzy, the idea seems to have considerable (and bipartisan) political appeal. In comments during an interview on Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who came to office through a recall election the likes of which California had never previously seen — indicated that he likes the idea of calling an unprecedented constitutional convention, too.

Dan Skelton, the longtime Sacramento correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, predicted that a constitutional convention “could be wild.”

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.