That California government is in a financial crisis is not news – but it is in crisis. And, that only 13% of Californians think that the legislature – both Republican and Democrats are doing a good job, indicates a that an opportunity exists to throw the baby out with the bath water. Or, as Rahm Emanuel says, “don’t allow a good crisis to go to waste.”
At an interesting conference, “Getting to Reform: Avenues to Constitutional Change in California,” on October 14, at the Sacramento Convention Center, Prof. Kimberly Nalder, an associate professor of Government at Sacramento State said California voters are like a person who contracts with a personal trainer to lose weight, then says, “but I don’t want to do any exercise and I don’t want to go on a diet.” and then blames the trainer for not producing results. The conference was sponsored by the Center for California Studies at CSU-Sacramento and others.
New Field Poll figures released Wednesday Oct.14, at the conference show that voters think the state needs fundamental reform. And, majorities would favor a constitutional convention to propose revisions.
However, they tend to oppose commonly discussed changes such as reducing the two-thirds voting threshold to pass a state budget or raise taxes, modifying or eliminating term limits and altering the state tax system.
"The rub is, what are we going to reform?" Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "With these results, it's going to be a tall order to put a package before voters that they will support."
There are two major groups promoting fundamental change, Repair California a mostly business interests group that plans to place a measure on the ballot for November 2010 calling a convention ( http://www.repaircalifornia.org/), and California Forward ( http://www.caforward.org/), a mostly business interest group –along with the State Building and Construction Trades Unions and other bipartisan advocates- who prefer to change the constitution with a series of concrete proposals rather than a convention. For example, a proposition could be placed on the ballot calling for a majority rule in the legislature rather than the current 2/3 requirement to pass a budget or to raise taxes. The Repair California convention approach assumes that delegates to a convention would be selected rather than elected and the 2/3 vote requirement would be off the agenda of the convention.
A constitutional convention could, for example, change the laws on labor rights or educational rights.
Scholars and advocates at the conference noted that California voters want more services and to pay less taxes, and some hope that a Constitutional Convention will achieve this improbably end. R. William Hauk, of the California Roundtable ( a business lobbying power house), the pre eminent Capitol insider argued that “the sky really is falling,” and that excessive partisanship prevented the legislature from fixing the very real financial problems of the state. This is a position- it should be noted- frequently taken when your side is not winning.
Prof. Amy Bridges of U.C. San Diego gave a historical analysis of the last time a constitutional convention revised the California Constitution in 1879 and Glen Gendzel, of History at San Jose State U. reported on the reform efforts of 1911 which brought us the initiative, the referendum, and the recall processes.
The history was informative, however it failed to note that the 1879 constitution replaced the 1849 constitution, and in so doing it eliminated the protections of bilingualism, of Mexican American political and property rights, and established a regime of White Supremacy. They did note the infamous efforts to ban Chinese immigration. These issues continue to resonate as recently as California Prop. 187 and 227. Proposition 187 itself was somewhat inaccurately described at the conference as having no practical effect because of the federal court injunction. That is partly correct. However, as those of us who were active in the campaign for No on Prop. 187 know, most of the provisions of California Prop. 187 went on to be included in the Immigration Reform and Control act of 1996 and thus apply throughout the nation.
So, for ethnic minorities, the constitutional convention route may be fraught with peril. Noticeably, the conference was almost 90% Anglo with an roughly equal distribution of men and women participants. California’s registered voters are 65% White, 21% Latino, 5.8 % African American, and 8.2 % Asian and other.
There was a significant presence of English speaking media participating on panels so I anticipate that readers will soon see essays based upon the polls and the presentations at the conference. For details on the many aspects of the reform efforts see http://www.ReformCalifornia.org.
The precedings of the conference will be on line at http://igs.berkeley.edu/events/reform2010.html. And will be broadcast on the California Channel.