Remake California's Unwieldy Constitution : It's far too long about far too much; commission can give us a fresh start

Some say California's current fiscal distress began in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, the constitutional limitation on local property tax. Others argue that Proposition 13 and its progeny--including Proposition 4 (1979), limiting state expenditures, and Propositions 98 and 99, earmarking state revenues for education and anti-smoking efforts, respectively--only exacerbated the inherent structural problems in the state's 115-year-old Constitution.

Whatever the cause, the reality is this: California's Constitution is now longer and more convoluted than those of the federal government and most other states. And the document has produced a government that, in practice, operates far too slowly and inefficiently. Too much state revenue is earmarked for special purposes. Too much constitutional law is enacted through voter initiatives pushed by special interests. And instead of reform, the Constitution's deficiencies have, over the years, spawned angry initiatives that appeased some but also deepened fiscal and governance problems. The California Constitution, adopted in 1879, is now much less a set of guiding principles than an overly detailed and increasingly cumbersome blueprint for day-to-day fiscal operation.

FRESH START: The first meetings of the California Constitutional Revision Commission this month could, and should, mark a turning point. The 23-member commission came into being through legislation sponsored by Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego). Like many others, including this newspaper, Killea hopes that an independent, policy-savvy group whose recommendations are to be approved or rejected by the voters and the Legislature will be able to do what needs to be done.

Killea's legislation directs the commission to focus on four broad weaknesses in the Constitution: the state budgeting process, insufficient accountability, the ill-defined state/local relationship and poor delivery of community services. These priorities mean that virtually any and every governmental matter affecting Californians is on the table.

The wide-ranging group, whose members were appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature, will submit its recommendations for reform by August, 1995. It includes Democrats and Republicans, policy planners as well as politicians, judges and lawyers. This is only the third time Californians have taken such a systematic look at their Constitution since the state joined the Union in 1850.

The commission will achieve the most, in our view, if it directs its work toward the following goals:

SIMPLIFICATION: The state Constitution has been amended hundreds of times. Each election--this June's primary is no exception--voters graft onto the Constitution policy changes that more appropriately would be enacted as statutory, more easily changeable law.

At the very least, the commission should dramatically reform the initiative and amendment process to conform more to the federal model, under which such changes are rare, more difficult to make, pertain to broad governmental principles and are the result of overwhelming public consensus.

EFFICIENCY: Even the worthiest of bills crawls through legislative committees and oscillates between the Assembly and Senate before--perhaps--landing on the governor's desk. Killea is intrigued by the idea of a unicameral legislature, like Nebraska has. She also wants to explore replacing Sacramento's annual fight-to-the-death budget process with a more rational, fiscally responsible two-year budgeting cycle. Both of these ideas have potential.

PREDICTABILITY: To fulfill their responsibilities, the three major local governmental units--counties, cities and schools--must have predictable, reliable revenue sources. Local governments must also have more connection both to the money they raise, through taxes and fees for example, and the money they spend. They have had neither predictable revenue nor control over it for some time. Changes in school financing, in particular, should be authorized with a simple majority vote instead of the high hurdle of two-thirds approval.

No doubt the state constitutional commission faces a tough task. But with the governor and Legislature suiting up for the coming budget battle, and voters beginning to pore over the complex June ballot, the need for reform that will benefit California in future years is manifest.

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