The main issue many of those who attended the California Constitutional Convention Summit yesterday in Sacramento had on their minds was eliminating the two-thirds vote to pass the budget and raise taxes. That item came up over and over from Lt. Governor John Garamendi to panelists to members of the audience.
Of course, a simple amendment to the constitution can change the two-thirds vote, a constitutional convention is not needed to do that. The question that was not answered at the meeting spearheaded by the Bay Area Council and hosted by a number of organizations: Is there a need for a California constitutional convention?
Presumably, the 400 or so attendees to the conference thought so, or were at least curious about the possibilities. Of course, the meeting was held in Sacramento, which is a “company town” involved with government. There seemed to be a lack of political diversity in the room. However, Bay Area Council president Jim Wunderman promised to extend the exploratory effort and reach out to other parts of the state and other points of view.
Still, it was an impressive turnout. Attendees heard about a variety of possible reforms from creating smaller legislative districts to altering term limits to establishing a unicameral legislature to changing the initiative process.
The How To questions were batted around. How to call a convention. How to select delegates to a constitutional convention. How To prevent special interests from capturing a convention. Safe to say nothing is clear on any of these points, and lawsuits will probably fly as each step is taken toward trying to move toward a convention.
The most compelling discussion at the conference came from Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters. Instead of looking at possible changes to the constitution, such as those mentioned above, he took the broader view considering the potential of a constitutional convention to deal with California’s “crisis in governance.”
Walters acknowledged that America’s Founding Fathers were concerned with authority and wrote a constitution of checks and balances to diffuse power. Walters argued through initiatives, Californians have dispersed authority even more crippling the system.
Walters also argued that California’s diversity of special interests makes it hard to get anything done. He argued these special interests are devolving into a collection of “tribes” whether they are geographic tribes, or economic tribes or tribes coalescing around issues. He said that these tribes are in constant warfare with each other. Because of this warfare, Walters argues nothing gets done in Sacramento unless unanimity can be reached on an issue. And once unanimity is achieved the final product is often meaningless or plain wrong, the electricity deregulation of a decade ago being a prime example
The remedy for California’s dysfunctional government Walters asserted was to allow more authority to act, and to remove impediments for minorities to stop action. Walters indicated this might be accomplished in creative ways from regional governments to a parliamentary system of government.
Proponents of the constitutional convention will continue to explore whether the idea has traction and whether issues can be resolved. We’ll see if it catches on.
The U.S. Constitution, especially through the Bill of Rights, protected the people from government. Coming away from the summit, I had the nagging concern that this constitutional convention effort might move into shaping a constitution that protects the government from the people.