Easier tax increases and budget approvals seems to be the primary goals of a proposed state constitutional convention.
SACRAMENTO — There ain’t no such thing as bipartisan, nondivisive reform. Any real change to California’s dysfunctional political structure and culture must gore somebody’s ox, stir up contentious battles and draw vicious rebukes. Real reform has to take on the special interests that are destroying California, otherwise the “reform” ideas will do nothing of substance to clean up the mess.
It’s crucial to understand this as you evaluate two ballot initiatives filed with the state last week by a group called Repair California. The measures are designed to call a constitutional convention to revamp California’s overly long and cumbersome constitution. Supporters have proposed a limited convention that “may not propose direct tax or fee increases nor shall it address social issues or other issues related to increasing taxes and changes that could threaten protections on civil rights,” according to the Bay Area business group that’s behind the effort.
The first initiative would allow a constitutional convention to be called by simple majority of voters during a statewide election; the second initiative would call directly for the convention – a giant confab with delegates who would propose changes to the constitution, for eventual approval or rejection by the voters. If voters OK the first initiative in 2010, the convention could be on the ballot in 2011. Any revisions to the state constitution that come out of the convention would go to the people for aye or nay.
Backers of the idea are correct when they say that California’s system of governance has become a laughingstock and that the current situation – i.e., the difficulty in even passing a balanced budget, the endless partisan battles that end in deadlock – is having a deleterious effect on the state’s educational system, infrastructure and business climate. Everyone, Left and Right, can agree on that much. But after the easy agreement, there are no noncontroversial solutions.
The state’s dominant Democrats believe that government should continue to grow, that public employee unions are a positive force in the state and should continue to exert unchallenged leverage in the Capitol and that the only real problem is that California’s constitution makes it too tough (thanks to two-thirds legislative vote requirements for tax increases and budget approval) to continually increase taxes to pay for all the spending programs they desire. State Republicans argue that the government is too big and spends too much (even though many of them have caused a good bit of the problem with their regular approval of spending on “public safety” and prisons).
How do you bridge the gap between those two conflicting ideologies? You can’t – hence the current stalemate.
Convention advocates have in mind a variety of process measures – redistricting reforms, campaign finance laws, governmental efficiency measures and budgetary reforms that would make it easier to pass a budget. Again, the group has sworn off changes that would result in direct tax increases and has put contentious social battles off the table. Nevertheless, it’s no secret that the convention’s chief advocates want to make it easier to pass budgets, which will only delay real reform by softening the tools that allow conservatives to stand up to those who are sure that more government is the answer to whatever ails California.
Conservative political writer Stephen Frank argues, “If you wanted to kill someone in the open, with millions watching, this is the way to do it. Do not provide a single ballot measure with the title ‘Repeal Proposition 13.’ Instead you create a ‘convention’ with hundreds of reforms on the table. A tweak here, a tweak there, and the main goal, the ending of Prop.13 [the landmark 1978 property-tax limitation measure]is hidden in the mass of ‘ideas.’ The whole, and only real purpose of a constitutional convention, is to end the need for a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Then end the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget. Combined, you have the real ‘reform’ these folks want. But they need the smoke and mirrors of a ‘convention’ to hide the crime about to be committed.”
In my view, Frank has it right, and his contention is confirmed by the big-time list of Lefties supporting the effort. There really are only two possibilities here: the convention is a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the two-thirds vote requirement and other budget-passing, tax-raising restrictions, or it is a do-nothing reform that will focus on gimmicks that will in no way fix what’s wrong with our state – a lovely place that constantly is under assault by the people who govern us.
I’ve got a big problem, in general, with political gimmicks from the Left or Right. The Left loves campaign-finance reform, which has only increased the role of money in the political process. The Right brought us term limits, which promised to reform Sacramento but only ensured that less-capable bad legislators replace long-serving bad legislators. There is no reforming anything without going right down the middle and taking on the heart of the problem – a government that is too big and special interests, especially government employee unions, that are so powerful they block any sensible improvement to anything.
Treasurer Bill Lockyer said at a recent legislative hearing: “It’s impossible for this Legislature to reform the pension system, and if we don’t it will bankrupt the state.” Last week, the Sacramento Bee editorial page argued that a newspaper investigation showing that the state spent millions of dollars on new vehicles that sat unused even as the state was sinking in debt was a core example of why California is heading to insolvency. Those two liberal sources, Mr. Lockyer and the Bee editorial pages, touched on the foundation of the problem. Yet nothing the constitutional convention proposes will help unravel the pension crisis or force state officials to treat the public dollar more carefully.
Given the politics here, there are no easy solutions, just the continuing tough battle over the same old issues. How do you know when someone hits on a potentially meaningful reform that might actually repair California? You’ll hear howling – rather than encouragement – from the unions, special interest groups and other usual suspects. My advice: don’t support any idea unless you hear such howling.
Contact the writer: (Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center. Contact him at [email protected].)