A bold fix for California's budget impasse
Fed up with another late budget, a business group proposes a state constitutional convention.
As California lawmakers broke the record last week for the most overdue budget in state history, exasperated residents told pollsters they are deeply pessimistic about where the state is headed and how it is run.Skip to next paragraph
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Enter a bold proposal: convene a state constitutional convention to change the way the budget gets made.
The idea comes not from a quixotic citizen crusader, but from a staid corner of the business community. "Everything is stuck in place. Political stalemate abounds on the budget and other major issues," says Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business consortium based in San Francisco. "We can't compete the way we are operating."
Constitutional conventions have become rare even in states that periodically place the option on the ballot, including this November in Hawaii, Illinois, and Connecticut. Voters are concerned about opening a Pandora's box of special interests, though experts say there are ways to limit that.
"When the real problem is legislative gridlock or intransigence, and ballot measures have already failed, then there isn't any other avenue than the constitutional convention," says Robert Williams, a law professor and associate director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.
California leaders have made little headway for years on some of the state's most urgent problems, including prison overcrowding and water allocation. No issue typifies the gridlock more than the budget. For 23 of the past 32 years, lawmakers failed to agree on a budget on time.
This year, lawmakers facing a $15.2 billion deficit have been unable to enact a budget since July 1, the longest such delay in the state.
Unlike most states, California requires a two-thirds majority to pass a budget. Democrats have a solid majority but not two-thirds, giving Republicans little power except effective veto over the budget. Also, the legislature carves out districts "safe" for one or the other party, resulting in the election of few moderates.
Democrats balk at Republicans' proposed spending cuts, while Republicans won't budge on pledges never to raise taxes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) wants a temporary increase in the sales tax, followed by a deeper tax cut, but members of his own party aren't interested.
Even when a budget deal is finally struck, it's unlikely to change the opinion of many Californians who see the process as dysfunctional.