Tag Archives: bay area council

What A Constitutional Convention Means To Me

People seemed to really engage with this post about a Constitutional convention, so I wanted to follow up with some of my thoughts for what a convention could tackle and what it could look like.  As it happens I attended a town hall meeting about a proposed ConCon a couple weeks ago in Santa Monica, featuring Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council, Steven Hill and Mark Paul of the New America Foundation, Asm. Julia Brownley (AD-41), Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor and LA City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.

At the root, a Constitutional convention must concern itself with restoring confidence in government.  Right now, that’s at an all-time low, especially after budget agreements hashed out in secret that defy the will of the people and an erosion in the public trust in lawmakers to do the right thing in Sacramento.  Government is not responsive, in fact in many cases it cannot Constitutionally be responsive to the popular will.  The institutions have become paralyzed and captive to special interest lobbying.  We have ten lobbyists for every legislator in Sacramento.  And we have turned over the reins to a new branch of government, the ballot, and anything significant must be mandated by a vote of the people.  As Julia Brownley, now in her second term, said, “Government structure is broken and we need to fix it… I didn’t understand until I set foot in the Legislature the paralysis and gridlock that kills the system.”  I think Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, who is carrying Constitutional convention legislation in the Senate, put it well when he said that California remains at the vanguard with anything that can be accomplished on a majority-vote basis.  Anything with a 2/3 threshold, in other words anything fiscal, is a mess. And it needs to be solved.

So how would a convention, the first of its kind since 1879, be structured? (flip)

 Right now, only the Legislature, with a 2/3 vote, can call for one.  But the Bay Area Council and others who have studied this believe they can go to the ballot with two measures – one changing the Constitution to allow the people to call for a convention, and another to call for one.  These can even be accomplished on the same ballot; while some have raised legal objections to this, this is pretty much how a recall election works, with the recall and replacement on the same ballot.  Those who want to maintain the status quo because it works for them may disagree, but the California Supreme Court has clearly shown very wide latitude on votes of the people under the current system.

Other major issues to be hashed out with a convention are the scope and the delegate selection.  Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council has said that everything within government should be on the table, which worries some that a Pandora’s box will be open, an opportunity to mess with fundamental rights.  First of all, that’s the case right now, as last November proved.  Second, I do believe there would be eventual problems with any document that nullified rights granted by the federal Constitution (the basis of the current Prop. 8 lawsuit).  What we’re really talking about with a convention is a process to create a more sustainable structure, dealing with electoral issues, governance issues, fiscal/budget issues, and direct democracy issues.  That’s a fair bit of territory, and I don’t see any need to expand beyond that.

Then there’s the thorny issue of delegate selection.  Steven Hill explains in a study of the issue that there are three basic means for selecting delegates: through appointments, through elections, or through a random selection consistent with state demographics.  There are plusses and minuses to all of them, but Hill reasons that the appointment process could wind up looking like patronage, and the election process mired by our useless campaign finance laws.  Both would fall to the whims of the current broken process and could be hijacked by special interests seeking input in the results of a convention.  They would also wind up looking a lot like the Legislature, which doesn’t go far to renewing confidence and trust in government.  So Hill falls on the side of random selection as the “least worst” option.

Pros: Random selection would be the best method for ensuring a representative body; random selection of “average citizens” brings a sense of grassroots legitimacy to the process, which would give the proposals of the constitutional convention credibility with the voters; random selection might be the best process for shielding delegates against special interest influence; random selection has the gloss of being something new and different, never been tried, and therefore may have the greatest potential to capture the imagination of the public and the media.

Cons: Random selection of “average citizens” would not necessarily guarantee sufficient expertise on the part of the delegates. A thorough educational process would be necessary, and it would be important that the educational process for delegates was designed to prevent “capture” by any particular special interest or perspective. The selection process would also need to weed out any delegates who are not are sufficiently committed to participate for many months.

I don’t think capturing the imagination of the media is a good reason to do it, but Hill has cited examples of citizen’s commissions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in New York City dealing with the World Trade Center redevelopment, with fairly positive reviews.

I think where you fall along these lines can be best determined by your theories of government.  If you think that the system needs to be gamed for particular outcomes, you probably want an election that would allow the participation of various special interests.  If you believe that good government and progressive government are analogous, that an iron-clad structure itself need not be partisan, but just allow the prevailing philosophy of the majority to have sway over the results, you may be interested in a random selection based on demographics (and, I would add, party ID).  Right now, we have a progressive legislature and a conservative system, which frustrates efforts at accountability.  A small-d democratic system would not only be more fair than the current system of minority rule, and it would not only be more helpful for the voters trying to determine who is responsible for what happens in government, but it would actually be more fiscally responsible.  The Two Santa Claus Theory that dictates we can have robust services and endlessly low taxes forces government to resort to borrowing and accounting gimmicks to cover deficits, which lead to larger deficits pushed out to the future.  Spending mandates like Prop. 98 haven’t even worked to protect school funding – we’ve become the worst state on spending K-12 under that mandate.  A clear set of rules that resists enshrining policy but allows policy to work unimpeded through a framework of government seems to be the best practice here.

Then there’s our failed experiment with direct democracy, which brought about many of the constrictions under which current government now labors, such as the crazy 2/3 requirements, which allow the majority to say that the minority blocks their wishes while allowing the minority to claim that they have no power because they’re in the minority.

What do I think a Constitutional convention needs to include?

• ending the 2/3 requirements and restoring democracy to the fiscal process over the tyranny of the minority, and returning decisions for spending and taxation to elected representatives

• two-year budget cycles and performance-based budgeting to try and engender a long-term approach

• indirect democracy, where the legislature can either work out the item on the ballot with proponents and pass it through their chamber, or amend items that reach the ballot.  In addition, we need a higher barrier for Constitutional amendments and changes to the process of signature gathering.

• any ballot-box budgeting must include a dedicated funding source – “paygo for initiatives”

• smaller legislative districts, either by expanding the Assembly or moving to a unicameral legislature with 150 or more members.

• elimination of the current term limits, the tighest in the nation, with more of a happy medium

• instant runoff voting for state legislative vacancies to speed the process of filling them

• local government gets the local resources they collect without them routing through Sacramento

Those are a few of the things I’d like to see addressed, and I’m sure people have additional ones.  The crisis we currently have in California presents an opportunity for new thinking about government and how to manage the largest state in the union and one of the largest economies in the world.  Despite the doom and gloom, California retains its vibrancy, its diversity, its abundance.  Only the structure under with it governs itself has failed, and that failure has seeped into everyday life.  Lifting that structure will be like lifting a heavy weight off the backs of the citizenry.  We can lead a path to a better future.

Related – Repair California

Bay Area Council Initiative Langauge Holds Back on Prop 13

The Bay Area Council has been promoting an effort to convene a constitutional convention, through legislation or through initiative.  Their most recent draft of the language has been spreading around, and suffice it to say there are some problems:

The main group advocating for an overhaul of California’s constitution is circulating draft initiative language that would bar a constitutional convention from changing the property tax portions of Proposition 13.

The 2,000 word draft document has been distributed to numerous stakeholders and experts by the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group that has been outspoken in calling for an overhaul of the state’s governing document.

A spokesman for the group, John Grubb, said the document is still going through a revision process. But he does not expect the language about Prop. 13 and property taxes to change. (CapWeekly 6/22/09)

If we are to truly reform California, then let’s cut the bullshit.  There should be no sacred cows. We need to build a system of governance built truly from the ground up, or it becomes unclear whether the project is worth doing at all. If we are going to have poison pills from our current constitution built in from Day 1, what hope do we really have of building a workable system?

The BAC’s reasoning is pretty traditional stuff really, they are worried of Howard Jarvis’ ghost and a few “senior groups.”   If these supposed senior groups were really looking out for seniors, they would join the California Alliance for Retired Americans in calling for a fair and just budget that provides for services for the elderly, not a system that merely traffics in truism in how seniors are terrified of losing their homes.

The fact is Prop 13 was never about seniors losing their homes, it was merely a powerful political ploy to lower the taxes of corporations.  And that is precisely what it has done. Howard Jarvis himself was before the Prop 13 extravaganza, just another apartment owners’ group attack dog.  Prop 13 was really pure genius on the apartment and commercial property owners’ part. They get to use shell games and transfer their properties in whatever way they want, and never have to reassess their property. It’s a pretty slick little system, and it is why most their is a growing movement to fix prop 13.  In fact, San Francisco’s assessor-recorder, Phil Ting, is pushing a Close the Loophole effort to split the commercial and residential property tax rolls.

But the Bay Area Council really can’t be treated as some savior group. It’s not some creature of the grassroots, it is merely an organization of large bay are companies.  And that they want to preserve Prop 13, shouldn’t really be all that shocking.  But if progressives are going to work on this effort, we must work to ensure that all options really on the table. Cut the third rail fears and just work from the ground up.  Otherwise, it might just be more wise to pursue other avenues to reform.

Bay Area Council Pushes for Constitutional Convention, Launches RepairCalifornia.org

The Bay Area Council has been pushing for a Constitutional Convention for a while now. In the wake of the disaster that was yesterday, they are launching a new website, RepairCalifornia.org, combined with a series of events across the state to encourage the Legislature to put measures on the ballot for a constitutional convention. The group, which is a collection of mostly tech companies from the bay area, also says if the Legislature doesn’t put them on the ballot, they’ll do it through signatures.

The events begin in Sacramento this morning, and will continue throughout the state.

Update by Robert: I am currently in Sacramento to participate in an 11:30 press conference BAC has put together. I’m representing the Courage Campaign, which has supported the Constitutional Convention concept since our members expressed overwhelming support for it back in September. It seems increasingly obvious that a Constitutional Convention is necessary to save this state. It’s time we moved beyond “if” to “how” and “when.”

The Ungovernable State

For a couple of years the fact that California is ungovernable has been plain to see to anybody who really pays attention.  That is why you get calls for a constitutional convention from business groups like the Bay Area Council and from progressive groups like the Courage Campaign.  We need fundamental change in our constitution. We need to fix the initiative system and the restore the underlying balance of power that should exist in a modern representative democracy.

Today we get a slew of articles in the mainstream media, saying, that well, perhaps California is ungovernable. Follow me over the flip.

But California government is arguably more dysfunctional now than it was when Davis, a Democrat, got the boot. The budget deficit has grown so huge that a shutdown of government services looms. Partisan gridlock grips the Legislature, and lawmakers bicker as the state plunges into crisis.

* * *

The state’s latest collision course with insolvency has renewed the question in the Capitol: Has California become ungovernable? (LAT 12/15/08)

When Arnold used the recall system to bulldoze his way into power, he promised to “blow up the boxes.” Not only has not blown them up, he’s discovered that they contain some nice goodies inside.  His cynical use of the vehicle license fee created the massive deficit and he has totally lost the legislature.  While many can dispute Davis’ effectiveness, it becomes increasingly clear that even he did a better job that Arnold.

So was the recall worth it?  Well, it seems there are a few people who got over it:

“I was thinking that we needed to do something before the ship totally sank,” the 35-year-old postal carrier said last week as she ended her shift at Yuba City’s downtown post office. A Republican, Shaffer voted to recall Democrat Davis and replace him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. For a time, she was pleased with the new GOP governor, who made vague but vivid promises to transform Sacramento and the way it operated.

“Now it just seems either the system got to him or he just gave up and has gone with it,” Shaffer said as evening fell on the northern Sacramento Valley. As for the recall, she said, “I don’t think that it made a difference, because we’re still in the same boat we were in then, only worse.”(LAT 12/15/08)

To say the least. Back then we had a somewhat trivial budget deficit in comparison, and we were able to quickly eliminate it by repealing the “good times” VLF cut. Now, well, I think we all know there is no easy solution.  Arnold’s “car tax” rhetoric pretty much ended any chance for that.

As Dave pointed out, there is a semblance of momentum for some serious change in Sacramento.  With leaders like Steinberg and Bass willing to push reforms that actually aim to fix the government, it might be time to seriously look at how we can do to create some long-term good government solutions.