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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

California's Con/Con?

Just this week it appears that California's legislature finally compromised on a budget that would fix the shortfall in the short term.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California legislative leaders Monday said they reached a compromise to close the state's $26 billion budget shortfall.

Under the plan, state lawmakers would cut $15 billion in spending. The rest of the gap would be filled by taking funds from local governments and through one-time fixes and accounting maneuvers. The deal must still be approved by rank-and-file legislators, who are expected to vote on it Thursday.

"We have accomplished a lot in this budget," Mr. Schwarzenegger told reporters after lawmakers struck the deal Monday evening. "We dealt with the entire $26 billion deficit," he said.

While this gives the state's budget a reprieve in the short term, it does nothing to solve the plethora of structural problems that have afflicted the state to put into this position. A movement is growing in the state that will attempt to tackle that problem. That movement is the movement for a Constitutional Convention. This movement is a coalition of activists and think tanks that include the New America Foundation, the Bay Area Council, and Common Cause among a coalition of groups that includes conservatives, liberals, business leaders, and localities. The current California Constitution is nearly two hundred years old, it's the third longest Constitution in the WORLD, and it's been amended about 500 times. So, there are four structural problems that need to be attacked.

1) Budgetary Rules:

The budgetary rules favor waste, corruption, and inefficiency. For instance, all budgets must pass with a two thirds majority. That makes it nearly impossible to make unpopular cuts. The budget is NOT performance based. In other words, departments have no metrics to judge performance. In a performance based budget, department heads lay out quantifiable goals and those that meet goals earn more money in their budget in future fiscal years. In California, department budgets merely grow as a factor of inflation, and as department Secretaries propose new programs money is earmarked into their budgets for those programs as well. This creates a vicious cycle of an out of control government. Cutting budgets is near impossible because getting two thirds of legislators to agree. Growing budgets is much easier since it only takes a good sounding idea from a Secretary. In Texas, the state has something known as the sunset commission. In that state, all new programs go away after twelve years unless a specific act of the legislature. The state of California has no such commission.

2) The Initiative Process:

Right now, the process for introducing a budget initiative onto the ballot favors wealthy special interests and they're made nearly impossible for the average citizen to succeed. In order to get an initiative on the ballot, an idea must be drafted and presented to the Attorney General's office. That proposal is reviewed and then the Attorney General's office draws up the language for the initiative that will be used if it winds up on the ballot. At this point, supporters have 150 days to gather about 800,000 signatures for this initiative. Of course, such a task takes millions of dollars and hundreds of man hours. As such, an ordinary citizen would never get their initiative on the ballot.

3) The Relationship Between the State Government and Localities:

Over the last several decades, the government in Sacramento has usurped more and more power from counties and localities. More and more, property taxes go to the state first before being filtered back to the localities to pay for schools and roads. Once Sacramento gets its hands on any money they filter it back to counties and localities with all sorts of strings. In fact, part of this budget compromise was Sacramento agreeing not to enforce a mountain of mandates they have created onto localities. Right now, Sacramento mandates all sorts of things like earthquake preparedness in schools, lawn care, among thousands of things that cost not only the localities but Sacramento itself billions to enforce. One idea is one implemented in the Constitution of the state of Illinois known as Home Rule. This lays out a clear framework for the responsibilities of local governments and mechanisms to make sure that all monies are raised and kept in those localities for those responsibilities. There is no such provision in California.

4) Elections:

Right now, between Gerrymandering and the primary structure, California has created a system of elections that not only favor the incumbent far too heavily but to favor the extremes. Most California districts have closed primaries. As such, the only ones allowed to vote in these primaries are those registered for a particular party. Since the primary voters more often than not represent the extremes, the extreme candidates win most often. On top of this, decades of Gerrymandering, fixing districts to favor a party, leave the general election nothing more than a foregone conclusion.

Several proposals have been suggested to fix this. First, the Constitution could mandate open primaries where anyone can vote in any party's primary. Another idea is called the top two primary. In this idea, the two people that got the most votes from all the primaries would face off. In such an idea, two candidates from the same party could wind up facing each other. Whereas the most extreme would likely have gotten the most votes in the primary, in the general election the more moderate candidate would be favored.

A third idea involves regional proportional representation. In this idea, the legislature would still be unicameral (just one house) but the representatives would be split into two categories. One set of representatives would represent districts. The other set would represent regions of the state. For the second group, all parties would submit a list of candidates. Then, the voters would vote for a party not for an individual candidate. Then, the parties would fill these seats based on the proportionality of their vote. This would by pass Gerrymandering and give third parties some representation in the legislature.

The Mechanism of the Constitutional Convention:

The key for any successful Constitutional Convention is to make sure that delegates are free of political and special interests. That's why this Constitutional Convention proposal will be a Citizen Convention. It's a concept known as deliberative democracy. It works much like polling. A random set of citizens would be selected and those citizens would accurately reflect the demographics, income, and political ideology of the state as a whole. Then, for each district (80 in total), two hundred people that represent the make up of the state will be sent a letter from each district. ( in other words all two hundred won't be conservatives, African Americans, wealthy, etc.) Those two hundred would then meet at a central location and out of those two hundred five will be chosen for the convention. Then, five people from each district will represent at the state's constitutional convention. The delegation will set rules but those rules will only be in the framework of fixing the four things I spoke about. This delegation would have subpoena power and so experts, special interest leaders, and anyone else the delegation sees fit will present their ideas in front of the delegation. After the ideas will be heard, the delegation will vote, under rules they designed, on a new Constitution.

This is a philosophy that has tried and worked in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, in New York following the 9/11 attacks, and in New Jersey to address property tax reform. Supporters of the Constitutional Convention believe in the process more than anything, though they each have ideas that they'd like considered in the convention. They believe that if regular citizens are chosen at random for a convention, that would by pass the special interests. Ordinary citizens with no agenda are the best people to make these decisions. The individuals would have the time to get educated and with subpoena power, they would have access to all sorts of experts from a variety of different perspectives. (all delegates would get paid throughout the process and the total cost for the entire convention would be about $25 million and it would come from the general fund)

What's Next:

The coalition expects to present its formal idea to the Attorney General of California in September. They expect the Attorney General's office to review the proposal. Then, signatures will need to be signed. The same problems that are currently in the Constitution will face the coalition. It will take somewhere around $6-7 million to get these signatures. Furthermore, the coalition faces a current Constitutional dilemma. Currently, the citizens can't call for a Constitutional Convention. Only the legislature can do that. As such, the coalition will have to have two ballot initiatives. The first changes the Constitution to allow the citizens to call for a convention. The second actually has the citizens call for one. Then, the initiative would go on the ballot in November of 2010.

Most Gubernatorial candidates including Meg Whitman, Gavin Newsom, Tom Campbell, and Jerry Brown have publicly supported this convention. (Arnold Schwarzenegger also agrees with it but he can't run again) Supporters believe that if they can get the signatures, the two initiatives should pass with a healthy margin. Still, the battle to transform California's political structure has just gotten started.


statusquobuster said...

I wish all those supporting a California constitution convention would learn the facts about the provision in the US Constitution for an Article V convention; get those facts at, and learn how Congress has refused to obey the Constitution and honor the over 750 state applications for a convention.

mike volpe said...

I think the folks in California have their own problems and don't have time to try and fix the U.S. Constitution as well.