Why Democratic Supermajority Could be Good for Reform

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)

Dan Walters wrote recently that the Democratic supermajorities likely meant the end of reform.

He very well could be proven right. But it also opens new options for reform. And the Democratic supermajority could be a big step forward for the broader constitutional redesign California needs – even if those supermajorities do nothing for reform.

This could happen in three ways.

  1.  The supermajority could call a constitutional convention. With 2/3, the Democrats have it in their power to fix the system. It takes a 2/3 vote of the legislature to ask the voters to call a constitutional convention. Democrats who complain about how the broken governing system limits their power in this new reality should be asked, pointedly, why they don’t use their power to fix the system.
  2. The supermajority could rewrite the constitution itself. It’s not merely that the legislature can propose individual constitutional amendments to voters with a 2/3 vote. But the constitution permits the legislature itself to act as a constitutional convention, and put together a whole new document or an integrated package of changes that goes to voters for approval. So when lawmakers protest that a convention is too scary, please remind them that they can do the job themselves. It would make a ton of sense if the legislature itself would take on the job of wholesale constitutional revision – or at least appoint a commission with real power to do it.
  3. The Democratic supermajority could find itself hamstrung and fail to resolve the state’s basic problems. This is the most likely option.

How would this be good for reform? Because some Democrats believe that reform isn’t needed now that they have such control in the legislature. The party is certain to discover that, with so much state policy locked into the constitution or initiative statute, there isn’t much that lawmakers can do, even with a supermajority.

But what they can do is design a new system.

My prediction: expect about a year of #3, before some Democrats pivot to #2.

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