Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Constitutional convention proposed

SACRAMENTO — Imagine a single act that could clean up the dysfunctions of California government.

Imagine taking the power out of lawmakers' hands to solve perpetually vexing issues such as prison overcrowding, broken water systems, failing schools, budget stalemates and gerrymandering.

Sound Utopian? Maybe. But, Jim Wunderman thinks an overhaul is in order, and a fresh approach is needed — especially after the 78-day budget morass that continued Tuesday when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to veto the budget that the Legislature approved. The chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business consortium, is convinced it would take a constitutional convention to drag Sacramento out of the muck that prevents the major issues of the day from being addressed.

He is calling on the Legislature to authorize a constitutional convention — which would be the first in California since 1879 — and says if it doesn't, he hopes to spur a movement to get the issue on the ballot.

"The system is broken and it needs to be fixed — our future depends on it," Wunderman said. "Looking at the future of our region, and of the state, we need the state to be governable, and it's not happening right now."

Most lawmakers might be reluctant to cede their control over government reform efforts, but Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said he's willing to take up the cause. When he assumes his Advertisementseat in the Senate next year, he plans to head a special committee on constitutional reforms and will offer legislation to create a convention.

A constitutional convention can take many forms, but would require a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to put the question on the ballot of whether one should be held. And, once the revisions are made — a process that could take years — voters would have to ratify the final product.

"After 78 days (of the budget stalemate), it seems like there's enough disgust that there's motivation to change things, a window of support to get serious about systemic changes to the constitution," said DeSaulnier, expected to be elected easily in November to replace termed-out Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, in the heavily Democratic 7th Senate District. "The Legislature and governor would lose control over a lot of the content, and therein is the threat to people in office. But limited control may be what's needed. It's clear to me that the structure of government in California is extremely outdated."

Wunderman said he envisions the convention being composed of nonpartisan citizen delegates from "all walks of life, who would represent the diversity and geography of California. It's going to have to be a group of people who come to this with good intentions, different ideologies and experiences. They'll have to work for the greater good and would leave the special interests at the door."

Through hearings and committee work, delegates would draft changes to the constitution. For instance, they could rewrite the law on how many votes it takes to pass a budget or taxes, or on spending formulas.

One hazard of a constitutional convention would be that it tries to do too much, incurring the wrath of special interest groups. A more limited constitutional convention could avoid that trap, experts said.

"It's hard to talk health care, higher ed and education spending in the same forum," said Fred Silva, senior fiscal policy adviser for California Forward, a government reform organization. "It's hard to settle on governance and fiscal issue at the same moment. People just don't think that way."

But Wunderman said a piecemeal approach won't work.

"Doing one reform at a time is the problem," he said. "We need to look at the totality of this and produce a comprehensive package."

A quicker — and perhaps less risky — path to reforms could be the one being taken by California Forward, which is working with regional, local and state officials to form a consensus on budget reforms and redistricting this year. Next year, they expect to tackle political and fiscal reform.

"We haven't excluded the possibility that we may need a constitutional convention, but we just think this is the direct route," said James Mayer, executive director of California Forward. "We hope to give the Legislature several opportunities to make reform in the next two-to-three years."

Still, Mayer agreed change is of the essence.

"We don't need any further evidence," he said, "that our governance system is at a low-water mark."

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