Daniel Weintraub: Maybe it's time for a government overhaul

By Daniel Weintraub
Published January 22nd 2008

When people first started kicking around the idea of a constitutional convention for California, I was skeptical.

The state's problems are huge, but this seemed like overkill. Open up the constitution for wholesale revision, and who knows what might happen? Plus, the Legislature would call the convention and control the process. Wouldn't that be even worse than the status quo?

But the more I hear about the idea, the more I like it. It turns out there is a way for the people to call the convention independent of the Legislature. The call can be limited to a few subjects, so the entire document would not be open to wholesale change. And, ultimately, the voters would have to ratify any changes proposed, so even if things got wacky, we would still have that protection.

So far the biggest supporter of the constitutional convention has been the Bay Area Council, a moderate business group. The council is sponsoring a public workshop in Sacramento next month to see if anyone else will back the idea. If it finds enough allies, it will then move to the next step of writing ballot initiatives to really get the ball rolling.

I hope the council at least gets that far. I want to see the voters given a chance to convene a group of citizens to re-examine some of the basic structure of our government and political system.

"Government is failing in a profound way," Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, told the Sacramento Bee's editorial board earlier this month. "It's reached the stage where I don't see it healing itself through a new leader, a temporary solution, good will on the part of the participants, an improved economy. Those are all things that are factors, but the situation we are in has to be seen for what it is, which is essentially government falling apart."

Wunderman noted that the most obvious problem – the state's fiscal crisis – is only one of the challenges the state seems unable to overcome.

The prison medical system has been taken over by the courts; a political standoff has stymied development of a water supply in the face of a potential drought; and the public schools are unable to make a significant dent in the achievement gap between poor kids and those from more affluent families.

I am not sure I agree that fundamental changes to our government are necessary to meet those challenges, but I am open to considering the idea.

Wunderman envisions two ballot measures. The first would authorize the people to call a constitutional convention, a power now reserved to the Legislature with the ratification of the voters. The second measure, on the same ballot, would actually call a convention and list the areas of the constitution that could be revised.

Most likely, the convention would be limited to election laws and the fiscal system. It might explore the use of open primaries or even a nonpartisan government to reduce ideological factionalism. It could look at whether term limits are working the way they are or if they need adjustment.

The convention could even consider whether California should make a more radical change, perhaps going to some form of proportional representation rather than the winner-take-all elections we have now.

On the fiscal front, the convention could examine whether a majority vote for a budget would be better than the current two-thirds requirement, and consider whether a new spending limit might be necessary. It could also look at the relationship between state and local governments, and the nature of the state bureaucracy. Wunderman, for example, likes the idea of a sunset law that requires every government program to go out of existence every 10 years or so unless the Legislature votes to reauthorize it.

Who would serve? That's still an open question. One possibility is that the members would be elected in local races, say in each state Assembly district. Another option would be to invite citizens to serve more or less at random, like a jury pool.

Either way, they would be advised by a panel of experts who could help them sort through the problems and the options people have put forward for solving them.

A constitutional convention is not the only way to enact major reforms. Another is a constitution revision commission, but that would be a creature of the Legislature, dependent on lawmakers to place its recommendations on the ballot. An independent commission, in contrast, would start with the public's blessing and, probably, get the benefit of the doubt from voters when it completed its work and sought approval for its proposals.

The California Constitution was written in 1879 and last underwent a serious revision in the 1960s. It's a new century, the Information Age is upon us, and we probably need some major changes to bring government up to speed with the rest of society. It's at least an idea worthy of serious contemplation.