2009-08-06 / Front Page

Is constitutional convention the answer?

System broken
By Sophia Fischer sfischer@theacorn.com

IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers FUTURE STATE—From left, CLU political science professor Herb Gooch, Ventura County Judge Jim Cloninger, Bay Area Council president Jim Wunderman and Ventura County Star correspondent Tim Herdt discuss changes to the California constitution. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers FUTURE STATE—From left, CLU political science professor Herb Gooch, Ventura County Judge Jim Cloninger, Bay Area Council president Jim Wunderman and Ventura County Star correspondent Tim Herdt discuss changes to the California constitution. Can a constitutional convention fix the fiscal and governance problems facing our state?

That question was the focus of a public forum at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks on Aug. 3.

Among the speakers was Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, a San Franciscobased public advocacy group made up of large businesses in the “Repair California” campaign and pushing for a constitutional convention.

“What we have to do in order to save the state is unprecedented,” Wunderman said. “There is no clear path for how to do it. We have to invent it as we go step-by-step.”

Many feel it’s time to change California’s constitution and the way the state is governed and financed.

A call for a convention must be submitted to the Attorney General’s office by Sept. 25. Then, 800,000 signatures must be obtained to place the new constitutional measures on the November 2010 ballot. If the proposal passes, the convention would be held in 2011 and the delegates’ reform package would be voted on during the November 2012 general election.

Major overhaul

The convention would address four key issues: (1) Governance, which is the structure of the government, including the legislative and executive branches and the state agencies and commissions. (2) Electoral reform, including the initiative and referendum process and campaign finance and term limits. (3) The budget process and the controversial twothirds legislative vote required to pass a budget. (4) Revenue distribution, the fiscal relationship that exists between state and local government.

Using new technology, all Californians, not just the convention delegates, would be able to participate, Wunderman said.

But some of the forum speakers were skeptical about a constitutional convention and what it could accomplish. Any convention initiative would face court challenges, said Ventura County Superior Court Judge James Cloninger.

“People tend to think of courts as neutral arbiters but they’re not,” Cloninger said. “Courts in modern California have become players in the political system.”

He expressed doubt over the willingness of state lawmakers to relinquish power to lower levels of government.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Cloninger said.

CLU political science professor Dr. Herbert Gooch said change is fraught with dangers.

“It’s risky to do, but risky to do nothing as well,” Gooch said.

“You reach a point where you can’t keep putting Band-Aids on someone so wounded,” Gooch said. “Change is needed, but what do we want to accomplish and how are we going to do it?”

Wunderman said Californians shouldn’t be deterred by attacks from wealthy special interest groups.

“We can’t not go forward because we think we will be subject to challenge,” he said. “The people have the power to change this and nobody can stop us.”

Historical precedence In 14 states voters are asked every 10 to 20 years if they would authorize a convention and in seven states a legislative majority may call for a convention.

The last time California held a constitutional convention was 1879.

California’s constitution is the third longest in the world behind Alabama and the nation of India, Wunderman said. He added that California has the highest sales tax, income tax and corporate tax rates in the United States.

He gave an overview of the state’s problems: It’s bankrupt. Its education system is failing. Its highway system, which used to be the envy of the country, is overcrowded and in disrepair. Its water system is on the verge of collapse, and its prisons are overflowing.

“When you elect people, you expect them to represent you. They don’t. It’s a special interest mob in Sacramento and it’s paralyzing,” Wunderman said.

“We have a terribly dysfunctional, inefficient system in this state. Their solution basically is to spend more.”

For more information, visit www.repaircalifornia.org.

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