Vague Promises Not Enough for Convention Plan

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Maybe if someone could figure out how to turn a profit on political reform, it would have a better chance of making the ballot.

Backers of the effort to call a new state constitutional convention to update California’s creaky government machinery waved the white flag last week, admitting they couldn’t raise the cash to put their measures on the ballot.

“The money basically ran out,” said Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council, who came up with the convention plan. “I’m very sorry we had to call it quits.”

Wunderman and other convention backers remain convinced there’s a groundswell of support for wholesale reform of the state’s political system, but you couldn’t prove it by the campaign’s bank balance.

What the good government folk never did was answer the number one question voters ask about California ballot measures: What’s in it for me?

In California, that question’s usually asked and answered before a ballot measure is even written. The initiative to legalize marijuana use in the state, for example, was written by Richard Lee, an Oakland guy who’s one of the biggest names in the state’s medical marijuana industry. He’s put more than $1 million into the campaign, but that’s chump change compared to what he’s likely to make if every adult in the state can legally buy marijuana.

Then there’s PG&E, which already has spent $6.5 million on Prop. 16, an initiative that would make it harder for local governments to form public power companies that would compete with, big surprise, PG&E. That money’s an investment, not a campaign contribution.

The California Teachers Association has contributed $580,000 to qualify an initiative that would overturn business tax breaks that were part of last year’s budget deal. This would leave more money in the budget for things like, oh, schools and the teachers who staff them.

A couple of unions, the California Federation of Teachers and the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, have put better than $1.1 million into an initiative that would end the two-thirds vote requirement to pass the state budget. It’s a Democrat-friendly measure and Democrats are expected to be suitably grateful to their friends in labor.

Even the environment groups play the game, putting $1.4 million into an initiative that would provide more money for state parks by boosting the vehicle license fee by $18 a year.

So what did Wunderman and his Repair California troops have to sell to voters – and would-be donors? Only the promise of change, although no one, including its backers, could say exactly what would come out of that convention.

While the really exciting prospect was that the convention delegates could put major political changes in front of the state’s voters for ratification, the campaign had to spend much of its time promising potential supporters that those changes wouldn’t be all that major and absolutely, positively wouldn’t do anything really controversial, like try to revise Prop. 13.

“Fixing” government has always been a tough sell, especially since the difference between evenhanded reform and partisan revision often depends on where you’re sitting.

But reform can get done. In 2008, for example, good government groups got together and passed Prop. 11, an initiative that took redistricting out of the hands of the legislators and gave it to a citizens’ commission.

The Prop. 11 backers had a sharp focus the convention supporters never had. They were able to say exactly what redistricting reform would bring to California and show voters how the old way hadn’t worked.

Repair California, on the other hand, could say little more than “trust us” when people asked whether real reform would come out of a long-untested constitutional convention.

And as they found, when you’re asking people to provide more than $1 million just to get a measure on the ballot, a vague promise of nebulous reform isn’t enough to open their wallets.


John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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