There has been growing talk of convening a constitutional convention to deal with the budget and other California governmental problems. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and would-be governor Gavin Newsom have both endorsed the idea. How a constitutional convention would take shape is a great unknown.
The Bay Area Council, a business group that is spearheading the constitutional convention effort, has noted on their website that a lot of rules would have to be worked out. One is how delegates would be chosen. Three suggestions on the website propose that delegates can be elected, apply for the job, or be chosen like juries are selected.
With so much mystery on the workings of a constitutional convention, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the last time California put on a constitutional convention. That convention took place between September 1878 and March 1879. Delegates met for 127 days (over a 157 day period) although the act establishing the convention declared that, “no compensation shall be allowed delegates after the expiration of one hundred days.”
I suspect a modern day constitutional convention would take a lot longer. The revision of the constitution in the 1960s to 1970s lasted twelve years, on and off. Okay, it won’t take that long, but if the delegate selection is like jury selection some of the delegates will need time to educate themselves on the workings of state government.
There were 152 delegates in the last convention, all elected. Of those, 120 delegates were apportioned according to the counties and thirty-two were elected at-large, eight from each of the four congressional districts. Only one delegate, a twenty-eight year-old accountant from San Francisco named John Stedman, was actually born in California.
One of the first orders of business was for the Committee on Mileage and Contingent Expenses to determine the per diem and mileage payment for delegates as well as pay for officers. I guess legislative bodies remain the same throughout time.
Thirty separate standing committees were created and over the course of four months 538 amendments were introduced for consideration in the new constitution. How many would be introduced today is anyone’s guess. But, if we look at the number of bills that are introduced in the legislature every session, the answer could be in the thousands.
One issue that was considered by the 1879 convention delegates that is discussed every time constitutional reform is on the table is getting rid of the Lt Governor position. Could it finally happen?
There is talk of limiting a constitutional convention to certain areas, such as budget reform, but no one can say if that will happen.
The delegates a century ago plowed through the amendments stopping to debate the most complex or controversial measures. No surprise, but those difficult measures, which gave the delegates pause dealt with revenue and taxation. Today would be no different. But, the issue of revenue and taxation is precisely what started the discussion about calling a constitutional convention in the first place.
Of course, the most abhorrent measures included in the 1879 constitution denied rights to citizens of Chinese descent.
Once the convention was finished with its work the debate on ratifying the new constitution began. While constitution clubs and anti-constitution clubs formed around the state, the battle was waged mostly in newspapers. Today, with newspaper influence fading and more advanced modes of communication extant, including the Internet becoming more prominent, that would change. However, one item might remain from long ago – disagreement between Northern and Southern California.
Most Northern California newspapers (with the exception of the San Francisco Chronicle) opposed the new constitution. Many Southern California papers supported it.
In the end, the voters ratified the constitution 53.7% to 46.3%. A little more than 145,000 votes were cast.
Obviously, if the California proceeds to a constitutional convention in this century things will be different than long ago. But, thanks to human nature there will be a few basics that will remain the same.