With frustration exhibited in many quarters about the difficulty to govern California, I wondered if anyone would call for a state constitutional convention to re-work government from the ground up. Somebody has. Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council business group published an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle suggesting just that.

Spurred on by another late budget, Wunderman is promoting the idea of a constitutional convention to change a California government he says suffers from “drastic dysfunction.”

Opening up the Constitution is fraught with dangers. California’s only effort to overhaul the constitution in a convention occurred in 1879. Delegates from the Workingman’s Party and the Grangers captured that convention. They were able to produce a document that put into the constitution their agenda, which included regulation of the railroads, new tax policies and restrictions on Chinese from owning property or holding certain jobs.

Agenda driven groups would likely attempt to capture as many delegate positions as possible in a modern day convention to shape a constitution to their liking. Of course, the voters will have the final say, as they did in 1879. In our modern politics, a huge effort to rewrite the constitution could be un-done by opponents who focus on just one clause that they oppose and produce 30-second ads to kill the whole proposal.

Still, raising the idea of a constitutional convention highlights the problems in governing modern California and the debate could be interesting.

UC Berkeley professor Bruce Cain, who has studied California constitutional change, raises the concern of mixing “a 19th century process and 21st century politics.” Cain sympathizes with the goals of those who want to see California’s basic law made more streamlined. “No question the whole constitutional structure was done in a piecemeal fashion and lacks overall coherence. The notion to reconcile and rationalize makes sense.”

But Cain raises concerns about interest groups and slates of delegates controlling the process. He wonders if “we can’t do what we used to do?”

Most people think calling a Constitutional Convention means that everything is on the table—yes, abortion rights, gay marriage, term limits, Proposition 13 and Proposition 98 included.

However, Fred Silva, who served as executive secretary to the California Constitution Revision Commission in 1996, argues that there could be ways to prevent runaway conventions. “The call for the convention does not have to be all or nothing. It can be structured for a topic so to make a choice on a particular set of issues.”

Silva believes the measure calling the convention could instruct the Secretary of State that if the convention adds topics that are not allowed by the original call, then none of the constitutional changes would go to the ballot.

California has been a difficult place to govern for some time. When Pete Wilson considered his run for governor in 1990, legendary political strategist Stu Spencer advised against it, saying, “California is ungovernable.”

It hasn’t gotten any better since then. But, is it worth the risk of plunging into the deep waters of constitutional reform by open convention?

Last week, I appeared with Wunderman on a radio show discussing his plan. To the objections raised against a constitutional convention, Wunderman responded that you have to measure those concerns against the status quo.

Someone once said that in American politics, nothing much happens until the status quo becomes more painful than change.

Are we there yet?