When it comes to reforming government in California, an old adage says it best:

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

To translate that into crassly political terms, every officeholder is anxious to improve the way California works, but only if he doesn’t get hurt.

Talk to a Democratic legislator about the current two-thirds vote required to pass a state budget and you’ll hear plenty of pious talk about how a simple majority should always rule.

But that “Democracy Forever!” argument would vanish if it were the state’s Republicans and not the Democrats who held a solid majority in the Legislature.

It’s something to remember as the Legislature’s new political reform committees try to come up with a plan to “fix” California government or as groups like California Forward provide their own list of ways to update and improve the way the Golden State runs.

For decades, good government types, or “goo-goos” in the none-too-admiring political parlance, have been trying to figure ways to get the politics out of government.

Their general argument is that the hard choices work of governing are way too important to be left to politicians whose only concern is winning the next election.

That’s not necessarily wrong. Self-interest is the name of the game in politics and it will trump good government every time. But it’s also the way the system was designed to work and reformers ignore it at their peril.

Take, for example, the last full-scale effort to revise the state Constitution. From 1994 to 1996, a bi-partisan, state-appointed commission worked on a plan to modernize the government. Over the course of 30 public meetings, four formal public hearings, five workshops and dozens of community forums, the 23 members came up with their detailed map to a better future and presented it to the Legislature.

Which ignored it. Not only didn’t the Legislature put any of the recommendations on the ballot for voter approval, they didn’t even vote on them. The commissioners were thanked for their hard work and their report was filed and forgotten.

The reason the revision plan – and others like it, before and since – was dead on arrival was because while it may have been good government, it was lousy politics.

The revision team, for example, called for abolishing the state Board of Equalization and having the superintendent of public instruction, the treasurer and the insurance commissioner appointed by the governor instead of elected.

Not a bad idea and plenty of people would add the lieutenant governor’s job to the hit list. But politically, not only do voters like the chance to elect state officials, but legislators facing term limits also aren’t going to eliminate seven elected offices that could provide a future political home.

Another recommendation called for extending Assembly terms from two years to four years and revising the 1990 term limit rules to allow legislators to spend 12 years in each house.

Ignoring the problem of convincing voters to tinker with term limits, no state senator is ever going to vote for four-year Assembly terms. Right now, if an Assembly member wants to challenge a sitting state senator, he has to give up his seat, which means it doesn’t happen often. But with a four-year term, Assembly members would be able to run for the state Senate in the off year and still stay in the Legislature if they lose, opening the door to more contested races, which no state senator wants.

Other recommendations would have forced the governor, the Legislature or local governments to surrender power for what they were assured by reformers was the public good. That wasn’t going to happen, particularly when politicians often have a very different view of what’s best for the state.

In words that apply to any reform effort, Bruce Cain, a UC political science professor, remarked in a paper that “there is more to contemporary constitution reform than rational logic and deliberation. A successful constitutional change must succeed in terms of political and popular logic as well.”

When reform doesn’t meet that benchmark, it fails.

The group “Reform California” wants to call a new Constitutional Convention, which would bypass the Legislature and take convention’s reforms directly to the voters.

California Forward has put together its own list of budget reforms it wants the Legislature to pass, warning that they also could take those measures to the ballot.

But elections are a political game that good government guys don’t always win. Witness the losses by the Prop. 89 “clean money initiative” in 2006, 2004’s Prop. 56, which would have ended the two-thirds vote requirement for the state budget, and the five redistricting initiatives that failed before Prop. 11 was approved last November.

Politicians – and voters – aren’t going to bite the bullet and overturn the status quo unless they’re convinced that times are bad and going to get worse unless something is done and done now. While the state was sunk into the depths of a recession when the last constitutional revision started in 1994, California’s economy was much improved by 1996 and groundbreaking reforms didn’t seem so desperately needed.

“Changes have to be made in the middle of a crisis, not after the crisis was over,” Bill Hauck, head of the 1994 revision commission, told legislators in last week’s hearing on government reform.

So here’s the question for California: Are times desperate enough for reform?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.