A bold fix for California's budget impasse
Fed up with another late budget, a business group proposes a state constitutional convention.
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Nine in 10 Californians think changes are needed in the budget process, and 74 percent say "major" changes are needed, according to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). "There's pretty strong consensus across parties that major changes are needed," says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president. "The big question for the public is, who's going to initiate the process and who's going to lead it so it's not just business as usual."Skip to next paragraph
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Individual reforms put to voters on the ballot – such as allowing a simple majority to pass the budget – often fail to pass under suspicion that one side or other is trying to game the system. To succeed, a constitutional convention would have to allay similar suspicions of partisanship and special interest, says Mr. Baldassare.
Special interests would try to dominate any constitutional convention, warns Joel Fox, president of the Small Business Action Committee. That's what happened in the only state convention in 1879, he points out. The Workingmen's Party won about one third of seats to the convention, then wove anti-Chinese immigrant provisions into the constitution.
Constitutional conventions need not deal with hot button issues such as abortion and illegal immigration, argues Mr. Williams. Voters can place limits on the convention, and, he adds, special interest influence can be minimized by holding the event outside the capital and banning current officeholders from participating.
Even if Californians wanted a constitutional convention, they may not get it. The legislature, by some scholars' reading of the state constitution, must first put the question of a convention before voters. And legislators don't seem enthusiastic. "We don't need to replace our constitution, we need to return to it," says outgoing state Sen. Tom McClintock (R).
When he first arrived in the Assembly 25 years ago, he says, the budget process was more collegial and transparent. That's been short-circuited in favor of high-stakes, closed-door talks between the "Big Five" – the governor and the party leaders in the Assembly and Senate.
The Democrat who chairs the Assembly's Budget Committee, John Laird, worries a constitutional convention would try to do too much, provoking opposition. Having the legislature put targeted reforms on the ballot and rallying bipartisan support for them may be more successful, he says.
Another option is to appoint a commission to put reforms on the ballot, says Fred Silva, senior fiscal policy adviser for California Forward, a government reform group. California tried a version of this in the 1990s but the commission's proposals went not to voters but lawmakers. Turnover in leadership and an improved fiscal outlook reduced the legislature's appetite for many of the proposals, says Mr. Silva.
Silva says he wouldn't be surprised if an influx of freshmen legislators in the coming years opens up dialogue about another commission. But the move would not be easy. "For those involved in [legislation] on a day-to-day basis, there's nothing more difficult than to change the order of things," Silva says.