California Reformers Swipe At Beloved Ballot Initiatives


California's Constitution has been amended 492 times since it was enacted in 1879.

Now an effort is afoot to overhaul the tattered document in a way that would significantly revamp how government operates - including a proposal that could diminish the import of California's beloved citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.

"Our constitution is not something anyone can be proud of. Collectively, it's a mess," says Donald Benninghoven, vice chairman of the commission that, after two years of work, recently unveiled its sweeping revision.

The commission's proposals, which may establish a precedent for other state governments, offer a novel method to overhaul the relationship of local and state governments, consolidate executive authority in the governor, and mandate a two-year balanced budget.

Commission backers present these changes as a way to restore the accountability of government.

"There is a perception among our citizens that government is not working in California and not delivering value for the dollars we pay," says commission chairman William Hauck. "We need to change that."

But the commission is meeting significant opposition to its attempted reform of citizen-backed ballot initiatives.

"They're trying to make it a little more difficult to use the initiative process," says Joel Fox of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, who was recently appointed to fill a vacancy on the commission by Gov. Pete Wilson (R).

The suggested revision would allow the legislature to alter the wording of an initiative before it goes on the ballot, with the consent of the sponsors, and to amend statutes approved by voters after six years. Backers point out that California is currently the only state among the 24 initiative states that does not give the legislature the right to make such changes.

The constitutional rewrite also chips away at some of the most popular constitutional initiatives, including term limits and Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that capped California's property taxes and sparked a nationwide tax revolt. The revision allows local school districts to raise funds by increasing property taxes if two-thirds of the voters agree and to increase sales taxes by a majority vote. Many Californians blame Proposition 13's transfer of property-tax authority from localities to the state for the decay of California's public-education system in the past two decades.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the constitutional revision is a proposal for local governments to create "home-rule community charters," which would redefine the responsibilities of local-government agencies. California currently has about 7,000 separate government entities, presiding over everything from mosquito control to water management. Commission members say more efficient government is needed in this era of shrinking resources.

Even commission backers acknowledge, however, that these reforms face tough going in the state legislature, which must vote on the changes before placing them before voters. The expected opposition of special interests is compounded by a general political apathy surrounding the proposals.

The sense of urgency that propelled the formation of the commission two years ago - amid a deep economic crisis and voter anger over deteriorating services - has eased.

"There is a general sense of dissatisfaction with government, but the recession has bottomed out in California," says Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg, a key figure behind the drive to update the Constitution. He expresses skepticism about the legislature's readiness to put the proposals on the November ballot.

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