In the wake of the latest, but by no means the last, budget mess in California, I continue to believe that the only way to break the deeply negative cycle of fiscal dysfunction and budgetary gridlock is through a Constitutional convention that restores democracy and provides sensible, workable government in the state of California. You’ll be interested to know that this belief actually transcends party lines. Tom Karako directs the Golden State Center at the Claremont Institute, one of the nation’s most conservative think tanks. And even he agrees that the state’s Constitution needs to change to better serve the public. I haven’t previously seen a conception of what a conservative vision for a Constitutional convention would look like, and so I think it’s worth analyzing it to see their preferred options. Karako first says:
If Californians do rewrite the Constitution, it should be revised to resemble more closely the concise federal Constitution: more responsible legislators and executives, stronger control of the bureaucracy and less direct democracy.
Then he comes up with several issues that appear nowhere in the federal Constitution. Here are his six proposals:
1. Part-time Legislature
2. Hard spending cap
3. Two-year budgeting cycle
4. Eliminate the two-thirds supermajority requirement for budgets
5. Unified executive branch
6. Repeal ballot-box budgeting
The first four are either irrelevant to the federal Constitution or in direct conflict to federal Constitutional provisions. But I will soldier on and take them in kind.
Karako clarifies that his vision of a “part-time legislature” would not be a citizen legislature, and would include the same salaries and responsibilities as today. With all due respect, then, we already have this. State legislative sessions, in theory, open in January and end on August 31, and there are numerous recesses in between those dates. The only reason it seems lately like the legislature is always at work is because four extraordinary sessions have been called in the past year and a half to deal with the budget mess. Our legislature works around six months out of the year in less extraordinary circumstances. That sounds part-time to me.
This notion of a hard spending cap has been soundly rejected by the voters twice in the past four years. It is certainly not a feature of the federal Constitution, and it does not take into account emergency spending needs, the outpacing of inflation over wages in areas like health care, and multiple other provisions. States with spending caps have seen their quality of life suffer and their state rankings plummet (see TABOR in Colorado). This would in my view be disastrous, and obviously it’s the major bone of contention between liberals and conservatives.
A two-year budget cycle actually sounds prudent to me. I would supplement it with an advisory long-term budgeting benchmark that would bring the concept of long-term planning back into state government, but anything that looks beyond the horizon could improve the quality of state budgets.
Conservatives have begun to relent on the 2/3 rule for passing a state budget, while keeping in the requirement for taxes, for somewhat selfish reasons. I agree that the current system eliminates accountability for both sides of the aisle, and letting the majority rule on these issues would allow the people to decide the results of that course of action. But Karako doesn’t take this to the logical conclusion, that a budget is composed of taxes and spending, and that only with a full repeal of both of these 2/3 provisions would we have representative democracy in this state. He wants to hold one party responsible for budgeting while tying their hands on how to go about instituting that budget.
After citing positively how other states have part-time legislatures, and negatively how only two other states require a 2/3 vote to pass a budget, Karako calls for a “unified executive branch” without mentioning that practically no other state has its Governor appoint all additional Constitutional officers. Some states have Governors appoint certain various members, but not the entire slate. This and the next idea show a typical conservative contempt for the will of the people. Democracy, even direct democracy, is not the problem with California. (This “unified executive branch” is also a cover for vesting greater authority in the executive to engage in, as Karako says, “firing and controlling non-elected bureaucrats and public employee unions,” or union-busting, in the vernacular.)
And that leads us to Karako’s idea to repeal all ballot-box budgeting, where he does not specify between different types of ballot-box budgeting. Those measures with funding sources provide no strain on the budget process because they do not impact the General Fund. Unfunded mandates do represent a problem, and reformers have devised a solution, essentially “paygo” for ballot initiatives, requiring that they include a funding source before presenting them to voters. Karako, instead, wants to repeal all voter-approved measures and place them under the General Fund. I also believe in the indirect initiative, allowing the legislature a crack at either passing a ballot measure themselves in consultation with the proponents, or changing the language with amendments to better reflect current priorities.
On one thing I agree with Karako; “California needs constitutional reform before we can expect sustained fiscal reform.” I don’t think his ideas hold to his belief in drawing on the wisdom of the US Constitution; however, I do see some common ground, on two-year budget cycles, on the need for democratic rule, on initiative reform. My belief is that a Constitutional convention could bring together the entire rich diversity of the state to discuss, debate and decide on these issues, coming to a decision that will improve representative government in the state. I’ll see Mr. Karako there.
UPDATE by Robert: For a progressive vision of a constitutional convention, the Courage Campaign’s Citizens Plan to Reform California (CPR for California) is a good place to start. I plan to write more about it this week.