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Fixing California: A constitutional convention -- solution or threat?

June 5, 2009 |  1:26 pm

Fixing california Gavin Newsom is in favor. Erwin Chemerinsky is skeptical. Tom Campbell isn't sure.

The subject is a constitutional convention to take on the manifold structural problems in California's budget process at a single stroke.

There's more agreement that much in the California Constitution needs fixing than on how to reach the goal. Our corps of commenters on this blog have pointed fingers at the 2/3 super-majority required for the Legislature to pass a budget or a tax increase, the tax structure mandated by Proposition 13 and spending initiatives passed at the ballot box.

Efforts to roll back some of these provisions individually through ballot initiative have consistently failed -- think of the fate of a liberalization of term limits, which got voted down in February 2008. Would a holistic approach work better by balancing changes some voters won't like with others they'd find more appealing? 

As Chemerinsky suggests, one problem with convening a convention with an open agenda is that it might produce a package with something for everyone to hate. As he wrote in The Times on May 28:

[I]f the revised constitution protects a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians, a significant number of voters will oppose it on that basis alone. But if the new constitution does not protect a right to marriage equality, others will vote against it for that reason. The same impasse could arise over abortion rights, affirmative action or benefits for undocumented immigrants. 

Another question is how to keep a convention from being hijacked by extremists on either side -- those intent on turning California either into a state that refuses emergency healthcare or kindergarten education to those who can't prove citizenship, say, or into one with a prohibition against oil development or nuclear power written into the Constitution?

Perhaps the answer is a constitutional revision commission such as the body last convened in the mid-1990s, during another financial crisis. That commission, many of whose members remain prominent figures in the California business, academic and government sectors, issued dozens of recommendations, including lengthening term limits, requiring a budget rainy-day fund, restraining ballot initiatives and easing the route to tax increases. What happened? By the time the package came before the Legislature, the financial crisis had passed. Legislators, unsurprisingly, were happy to wash their hands of the whole thing.

What's your choice? Convention, commission or neither? And what, if anything, should be on the agenda?

--Michael Hiltzik

More from Fixing California series:

More ideas from readers:

Early retirements: "I'd bet if you offered early retirement to every state, county and city employee that can prove that their job was not needed, redundant or could be done by less than one person, that would have a list of easy cuts in spending." -- Phillip

Tax pot: "1. Legalize & tax pot. 2. Release all non-violent offenders into vocational rehabilitation programs. 3. Fix the frozen property taxes issue. Problem solved." --Dan

Fixing California: Illegal immigrants, mountain dwellers and Prop. 13

California Budget Balance, an interactive tool from The Times that lets you balance the budget.