Is it time for a Constitutional Convention?

As Rose Institute Alumnus and recently published author, Patrick Atwater (Claremont McKenna College ’10), notes in his new book, A New California Dream, California is filled with contradictions. The state has the largest economic output ($1.9 trillion as of 2010) of the 50 states but ranks 7th for income inequality. It has the most stringent environmental laws but eight of the ten most polluted cities. Perhaps most importantly, observes Atwater, California has a highly-publicized democratic initiative process but arguably the most dysfunctional state government in the United States. The problem of ineffective government seems so systemic in California that calls for a state constitutional convention in recent years are gaining support.

This is not the first time a constitutional convention has been discussed. Between 1879 (when California adopted its constitution) and 1934, there were four failed attempts at a constitutional convention. In 1969, however, a particularly successful Constitutional Revision Commission led to the creation of a fulltime, professional legislature. Recent attempts have been less promising. In 1993, another California Constitutional Revision Commission was formed to deal with budgetary concerns. After three years of comprehensive review, the Commission concluded that population and varied public service needs required the state government to work more efficiently. The Commission then proposed thirty-five far-reaching reforms for the legislative, education, and economic structures of California. These suggestions included limiting legislative terms, allowing legislators to clarify initiatives, changing the fiscal year to a two year cycle, and linking budget passage to salaries. By the time the recommendations reached the legislature, however, California’s financial crisis had passed and not a single of those reforms was adopted at that time.

Atwater argues that many of California’s problems stem from systemic issues that make the state ungovernable. He characterizes California’s constitution as unreasonable and even fundamentally broken. While the United States’ Constitution has twenty seven amendments, California’s constitution has over 500. Recent initiatives have attempted to fix California’s problems. For example, the elimination of a 2/3 majority for budgeting and independent redistricting are two recent reforms, but critics point out the measures will also have adverse consequences. Moreover, they only scratch the surface of solutions for California’s education, fiscal, political, and water crises.

Citizens and political groups have taken notice. In 2010, The Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group, sponsored the unsuccessful California Call for a Limited Constitutional Convention. Other organizations like California Choices, Repair California, and League of Women voters have also seriously considered constitutional reform as an option to deal with California’s growing problems. The state’s major newspapers have also voiced their support. The Los Angeles Times published a recent article, “California Needs a State Constitutional Convention,” while columnists in the San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee have also supported the idea.

Currently, convention supporters are unclear on the full range of issues a convention should address, and it remains unclear whether any limits could be legally enforced. Even with a narrow focus, a convention would most likely draw plenty of debate. According to the Economist, convention advocates are generally in two camps: those who think that it is necessary to reject the current constitution and start from scratch and those who think California can be reformed by less drastic measures such as updating parts of the current constitution.

The call for a constitutional convention is not without critics. The Bay Area Council’s initiative was attacked by three-time Pulitzer Nominee, Thomas Elias for being “backed by Google and other high-tech giants that finance the Bay Area Council business lobby”. Elias noted that if passed, the initiative could be subjected to enormous corruption. By nature, a constitutional convention would require parties to agree on extremely controversial issues for the state, including tax structure, the initiative process, and potentially even marriage. Opponents claim that even if a convention were to be held, the chances that interests groups would come to agreement on the broad range of issues in question would be almost impossible. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UC Irvine Law School, also notes that while California’s problems are immediate, a constitutional convention takes years to implement. He suggests that Californians pass initiatives to reform the constitution now, while the possibility of a convention in the future is debated. Additionally, the California Call for a Limited Constitutional Convention raised only $352,000, far less than the millions typically required to put a measure on the ballot.

Without a constitutional convention, any solutions to California’s egregious problems will be up to the same initiative and legislative process that are responsible for the problems’ growth. Yet the road to call a convention relies on the same messy process that changes to the constitution would attempt to solve.

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