Tuesday, December 9, 2008

DeSaulnier: Constitutional convention would fix state's problems

SACRAMENTO — The one issue that has broad consensus in the Capitol is that state government isn't working.

Everything else is up for debate, subject to hard ideological boundaries and harsher structural realities such as strict funding formulas and near-impossible legislative hurdles, such as a two-thirds vote requirement for budgets and taxes.

Into this morass, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, is offering a solution that's bound to raise the hackles of interest groups and partisan chieftains who thrive on governmental dysfunction. It's a resolution calling for the state's first constitutional convention since 1878.

His resolution, SCR 3, is open-ended and vague — calling for a constitutional convention without specifying what it is he wants to reform — leaving enough room for all factions to weigh in. A constitutional convention can address the whole constitution or parts of it, depending on the political will of delegates chosen to fix the core laws and principles that guide the state.

Delegates typically are chosen outside of government to remove appearances of legislative or executive interference and would likely meet in a series of hearings during a period of what could be years before arriving at a product that would ultimately have to be approved by voters.

"I deliberately made it as open as possible because that's where we should start," said DeSaulnier, who introduced the measure as his first act once Advertisementhe was sworn in to the Senate last week. "I understand the dangers and limitations of a constitutional convention. By starting with anything but a blank slate, people would criticize and say you're trying to control the process."

Legislative approval of a constitutional convention would require a two-thirds vote, which would then have to be ratified by California voters. To get there, lawmakers will have to wade through a whole raft of contentious issues to decide what would be included — no small feat. In fact, most observers believe that as long as core issues such as taxes and budgets are involved, the less likely the Legislature would be able to come together for a supermajority vote.

DeSaulnier believes, however, that there are a handful of critical areas that need to be addressed to improve government, including the way the state finances public services and how taxes are raised. He also said he would like to reform the initiative process, which he compared to the Winchester House, "where you're adding rooms, but there are no connecting hallways."

"We have to look at everything — it's not a time for incremental change," he said. "But I'm not naive about how difficult this is."

DeSaulnier isn't a lone voice in advocating for a structural overhaul of the state's constitution. Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, has his own constitutional convention measure, AB4, which lays out who would be eligible to serve as a delegate.

"That's a wonderful thing," DeSaulnier said. "Sam has the ability to move people in his own caucus. It gives me the feeling we might get some Republican votes on this."

A growing number of groups outside of the Capitol are also looking into putting the issue directly on the ballot.

"It may take a constitutional convention to rechart the course for California — and it is badly off course," said Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business group involved in legislative issues. "If the Legislature doesn't move on this, we could do this through the public process. This is about people who do have ideological differences but are willing to make reasonable sacrifices to achieve a greater good for society."

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