Repair California’s efforts to save the state

JIM WUNDERMAN has saddled himself with quite a challenge: fixing a state that The Economist magazine called “ungovernable.” Wunderman and his group Repair California want to rewrite a state constitution that has previously been amended 512 times into a bloated, contradictory mess.

California’s governance process has followed a parallel evolution and now that the economy has tanked, all the nasty underpinnings are sticking out for the world to see. Ventura County Star Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt, a panelist at the Repair California event held Monday at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said he has watched one too many deals made in the wee hours of all-night budget sessions in the legislature: “Now they only have one trick in their book and that’s sleep deprivation.”

A Bay area businessman, Wunderman says he has been joined in his efforts by a cross section of political groups like Common Cause, The New America Foundation, The Courage Campaign, Orange County Lincoln Club and Joint Venture – Silicon Valley Networks. Others are coming on board.

With so much contributing to the state’s dysfunction, agreeing on what to fix may take some doing. For example, the Commission on the 21st Century Economy is currently locked in a partisan battle on tax reform. But Wunderman outlined the following possible issues for a state constitutional convention:

  • Eliminating the 2/3 requirement to pass a budget (but not necessarily the 2/3 to pass a tax increase.) California is the only state to require a 2/3 vote for both.
  • Revising the fiscal inequities which exist between Sacramento and local governments because of Prop. 13. “They didn’t exactly intend for what’s happened to happen,” Wunderman said of the drain on funds for cities and counties.
  • Election reform. “It’s a special-interest controlled mob up in Sacramento right now. … The short terms in the Assembly have given it rookie-league status so they operate at the behest of special interests and staff, the only ones who have experience.”
  • Reforming the ballot initiative process. “It wasn’t intended to become what it’s become. It’s been taken over by special interests.” Initiatives of the future could have sunset clauses and a requirement to reveal economic impact.
  • Requiring performance measures for established programs.

THE CURRENT SYSTEM SPECIFIES that the legislature must call for a Constitutional Convention. But Repair California wants to bypass them and go directly to the voters with it. Once the Attorney General’s Office issues titles and summaries for a proposed ballot measure, the group has only 150 days to gather 800,000 signatures to qualify it for the November 2010 ballot. The convention would take place in 2011 and the delegates’ reform package would be voted on in November of 2012. 

How would delegates be chosen? Herb Gooch, a political science professor at CLU, and one of the day’s panelists, told me he thought they should be selected by Assembly district with all potential candidates voted on by the public.

While seasoned Sacramento hands like Herdt believe special-interest lawsuits will torpedo these efforts, the folks behind Repair California remain optimistic. If the packed room on Monday was any indication, the will is there.

“The people have the power to change this and nothing can stop them,” Wunderman said.

Marie Lakin is a community activist and writes the Making Waves blog for the Ventura County Star