Memo to California Reformers: Breathe and Read Some History

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

In the 24 hours after the election, would-be reformers around California have turned on a fire hose of proposals on the media and the public.

Everyone’s selling a solution. Higher taxes. Lower taxes. Tax reform. Spending limits. A lifting of spending programs. Reality-based budgeting. Zero-based budget. Performance-based budgeting. Marijuana-induced budgeting. A new ballot initiative that would require legislators to read the bills before they vote.

And most of all, a California constitutional convention.

Let’s call a time out and breathe. Here’s my own reform proposal for the reformers. Before proposing anything, open up Carey McWilliams 1949 classic, “California: The Great Exception.” You don’t have to read the whole thing, but I’m assigning all of you Chapter 10, entitled “Perilous Remedies for Present Evils.” California has a penchant for the same.

Another reason this chapter is relevant: it talks about the ex-vigilante Dennis Kearney and how his followers came to dominate the last constitutional convention in this state, and not in a good way. We ended up with an entire article of the constitution devoted to discrimination against the Chinese. (And given the anger at unauthorized immigrants in this state, I don’t think it’s farfetched to expect that a new convention wouldn’t encounter similar problems).

The idea of a convention is being put forward, I believe, largely out of desperation at our circumstances. The state is in deep trouble, no doubt, but remember this. Things can always get a lot worse. If anything, the prospect of a convention should be at least as frightening as our current predicament.

The good news, or bad news, depending on your perspective, is that it’s a safe bet we’ll never have a convention. The barriers are too high. For those of us who would like to write the two-thirds supermajority requirement for legislative votes on the budget and tax increases out of the constitution, a reading of the constitution offers this important point: calling a convention requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature!

Now, supporters of the idea want to use the initiative process to change that constitution, and thus allow the people to call the convention. Irony alert: our initiative process – and the record of California voters using it to lock systems in place – is a major contributor to our current crisis. Even if supporters of the idea succeed in calling a convention, the earliest such a meeting could happen is 2011. And if the convention produces recommendations (there’s no guarantee), voters would have to decide whether to adopt them. That’s unlikely to happen before 2012. The political and budgetary climate could be very different then.

It’s conventional wisdom that crisis presents opportunity. But crisis also requires policymakers to focus on addressing the immediate crisis. And we should focus on more likely, short-term prospects for reform. Since spending-side budget reform is now officially dead (sorry, Republicans, but no one in their right mind is going to put any kind of spending limitation on the ballot after voters rejected the last two), we need to look at tax reform as the path to budget reform. A tax commission has been working diligently and reports this summer. Let’s put more of our energies there.

And we might even look upon the state’s need for federal loan guarantees as a leverage point for reforming the system. I’ll have more to say about that here and elsewhere in the days ahead.

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