California’s Antiquated Constitution

I love California. Yosemite; Death Valley; San Diego and San Francisco; Mount Whitney and Mount Shasta; Southern California’s beaches; Mendocino; and yes, West Marin—I love it all. I came to California when I was six, graduated from the University of California (Los Angeles branch) and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

My love and admiration, however, can no longer blind me to the reality that the state of California has become seriously dysfunctional. We are the only U.S. state that has yet to pass its annual budget (as has happened in 19 of the past 23 years!). Also, we fight over water rights, our schools are falling way behind, our infrastructure is deteriorating and our prisons are overflowing. If you haven’t noticed that the Golden State is tarnishing, you soon will. Your income tax rebate might arrive as an IOU.

The root problem, knowledgeable observers agree, is California’s 160-year-old constitution. This 110-page document hasn’t been completely revamped since 1879. Meanwhile, our gerrymandered legislative districts produce lawmakers from the extremes of both parties, making passage of a budget all but impossible. Only two other states, Rhode Island and Arkansas, require a two-thirds legislative majority to pass their budgets.

The solution, most observers concur, is to convene a constitutional convention and completely rework, or rewrite, California’s governing document. For our Legislature to do this also requires a nearly impossible-to-attain two-thirds majority, so don’t count on it.

There’s another way to approach this problem, however. The Bay Area Council, a 64-year-old progressive and highly successful (it championed BART and the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge) business organization whose members include Google, Yahoo, Marin’s AutoDesk and Fireman’s Fund, is proposing a citizen-convened California Constitutional Convention. A public summit to decide the topics and process for the consitutional convention scheduled for February 24, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento.

The summit will be led by the council president Jim Wunderman and will center on four areas: realistic requirements for budget approval; election reform; the state vs. local government fiscal relationship; and ways of reducing the state’s entrenched bureaucracy. However, that doesn’t mean the death penalty and requiring executions be held only at San Quentin State Prison are off the table. According to one source: “The February 24 summit will determine just such issues."

Organizations planning to attend include California’s League of Women Voters; Common Cause; Leon Panetta’s California Forward; plus numerous school districts and chambers of commerce. “I think it’s a great idea,” said Marin Assemblyman Jared Huffman recently. “Anything that makes the case for a more governable state has my support.” In addition, Andrew Giacomini, a San Geronimo Valley resident, is a Bay Area Council board member and his law firm, the 160-attorney strong Hanson Bridgett, did pro bono legal work for a possible California Consitutional Convention.

Still, revising California’s constitution is no easy task. First, a majority of the state’s voters must agree on such matters as when and where a constitutional convention would convene; how delegates would be chosen; and what provisions will be up for revision. Optimistic planning says this could be on the ballot by the end of the year. Then, assuming the ballot measure passes, a convention could complete its work in three months, reliable sources say. This makes final approval a matter for a statewide election in November of 2010. Which is none too soon if you ask me.

Registration for the California Constitutional Convention Summit is $89 (including lunch) and available at or by calling Melanie at 415.946.8725. The Marin Airporter is offering a Sacramento round trip for $35. These coaches will leave the Smith Ranch Road Park and Ride at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, and return by 4:30 p.m. (To make a credit card reservation call 415.256.8830.) Also, Friday Forums will discuss the summit at lunch on January 30 at Jason’s in Greenbrae. The speaker will be BAC VP and Marin resident John Grubb. ($35, e-mail [email protected] for reservations.)

Rewriting California’s constitution is definitely a challenge—maybe a long shot. But an axiom in politics goes like this: “Nothing much happens until the status quo becomes more painful than change.” Our beloved California is in pain; change is needed. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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