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Poll: Rewrite the California Constitution?

May 29, 2009 |  5:05 pm

California, constitutional convention, budget crisis When I was a summer intern at The Times' editorial page in 2004, I expressed some surprise to an editor that, nearly a year after Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor and Sacramento seemed to have passed the peak of its 2003 budget crisis, the state was still in a bad enough spot for the paper to continue publishing editorials under its "Reinventing California" tagline. The editor smiled and replied, "Ah, the naivete of our youth," implying that I was wrong to have ever expected the state's fiscal nightmare to end with the election of a new governor.

How right she was. Nearly five years later, the state's situation remains so dire that many prominent voices have re-calibrated their criticism of the people and interests that control Sacramento, taking aim instead at the very Constitution that sets the rules for governing California. The state needs a constitutional convention, they say, and the Times' editorial board endorsed the idea last week:

There have been calls for months now to convene a state constitutional convention and, in essence, start over. It's a good idea. The state Constitution runs to two fat volumes in print and is padded each year by new voter initiatives or legislative propositions. In the end, it's just a document. It's not the enemy. But retooling is one necessary step to make the state function better....

No convention -- in fact, no statewide fix -- will work if it consists simply of one interest group's shopping list. The Times has made no secret of its position against the two-thirds legislative threshold for tax increases and budgets, and we will keep pushing to overturn it. But the point is to get more ideas on the table.

Prepare for the season of reform and reinvention. A tax reform commission is to release its report in July. Political parties and candidates will focus on next year's gubernatorial election. It's not time to back away from government; it's time to engage it, and change it. Over the coming weeks and months, this page will not be shy about asking questions and offering suggestions. Bring on the ideas. Bring on the convention.

UC Irvine law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky took to our Op-Ed pages this week to throw some cold water on the idea:

My experience as chairman of a similar convention -- an elected commission created in 1997 to propose a new Los Angeles city charter -- makes me skeptical that a constitutional convention can provide a solution to the serious problems that face the state.

It's not that I disagree about the roots of the crisis. The California Constitution is deeply flawed and desperately needs revision....

But is a constitutional convention the best path to a solution? Even if there is a constitutional convention, and even if it does come up with a coherent and meaningful package of proposed changes, it's uncertain that that package would ever be adopted. There are countless controversial issues that could doom it. For example, if 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.

Fellow Anteater Bernard Grofman, a UC Irvine political science professor, suggested in his May 27 Blowback that Californians should be given the chance to vote on ballot measure to repeal "all special-interest budgeting in one fell swoop." In last week's Dust-Up, Tom Campbell and Daniel J.B. Mitchell floated their ideas to end the state's perpetual financial crisis. Forbes columnist Peter Robinson today called for a constitutional overhaul:

Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a business group, has begun calling for a constitutional convention. The current constitution, Wunderman argues, is so long, convoluted and encrusted with amendments that Californians ought to toss it out and start again from scratch.

To keep the political class from taking over the convention, Wunderman wants to choose delegates from the state jury pool. Does that sound like placing trust in chance? If so, you've got the idea. Ordinary Californians, redesigning the entire state government.

William F. Buckley Jr. once said, "I would rather be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard University." Me? I'd rather be governed by a few hundred jurors from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Irvine, San Diego, Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton than by all the lobbyists and union officials in Sacramento.

It is, as I said, a beautiful idea.

Never let a good crisis go to waste, as the saying du jour goes, and ideas for fixing California are indeed flowing. Be a part of this conversation by leaving a comment below, taking our poll or both.

Photo: Attorney Gloria Allred writes in the phrase "except for gays and lesbians" on a posterboard showing a portion of the California Constitution Declaration of Rights (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images).

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