Finance

Too Broke to Fix?

Fiscal shortfalls in the tens of billions of dollars are virtually an annual occurrence in California. But this year, the state's voters seem even more...
by | June 30, 2009

Fiscal shortfalls in the tens of billions of dollars are virtually an annual occurrence in California. But this year, the state's voters seem even more frustrated with the budget process than usual. In the month or so since they turned down a series of ballot measures meant to patch the current budget hole, more and more citizens have come to believe that it's time to start over from scratch--redesign the process altogether. The idea of calling a constitutional convention to accomplish that has gained real currency. "We're in such terrible shape that anything would be better than what we have now," says Bob Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

The text of California's constitution contains 500 amendments, making it the most bloated such document outside Alabama. The state empowers 389 separate boards and commissions, and also--largely because of citizen ballot initiatives passed over the years--imposes numerous spending mandates that tend to conflict with each other. California is the only state to require two-thirds votes in the legislature for both tax increases and passage of its budget, leading to annual gridlock. A state that boasts of having the eighth-largest economy in the world now has a bond rating lower than that of all 49 of the other states.

One legislator who thinks he can turn dysfunction into reform is state Senator Mark DeSaulnier. He has introduced a bill calling for a constitutional convention that could rewrite existing laws and amendments that are causing much of the problem. Getting that through won't be easy; it will require a two-thirds vote in a legislature all but paralyzed by rigid partisanship. In fact, it may be impossible. That's why the Bay Area Council, a business group, is putting its money behind a campaign to establish a constitutional convention by public vote. It would be the nation's first constitutional convention since 1984.

But a convention is no guarantee of meaningful reform. It could easily be taken over, for example, by the same interest groups that have long stalemated Sacramento. That's why the Bay Area Council wants delegates chosen randomly, through a jury-pool approach. That could backfire as well: A group of randomly selected, semi-informed convention delegates could be forced to rely on expert advice and find themselves vulnerable to outside influence. "Major stakeholders are going to want to be at this convention to kill whatever they don't like," says University of California Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain.

Should a convention manage to cobble together a compromise, its work would still need further approval from the voters to take effect. The history of ballot measures in California suggests that the more complex a proposition is, the more likely voters are to reject it. And a new constitution would be the most complicated package of propositions ever. Dire as the situation in California is, the constitutional convention may be a good idea whose time has not yet arrived.

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