It was a town hall, certainly, but without the sense of chaos, the hint of danger, that we’ve come to associate with the words “town hall” in recent weeks. No gun-toting patriots, no dark portents of tyranny. No energy, in fact, at least not at the start of things. It was a blazing July morning, a Saturday, and several hundred people were clustered around tables in a subterranean conference room at USC. They were talking about overthrowing the government, and trying to stay awake. It was taking awhile for the coffee to kick in.
But then everyone forgot about the coffee. At the podium, a speaker began throwing this group of wonkish would-be revolutionaries a few choice bits of rhetorical red meat.
“A small group of extremists can hold the government hostage,” he said. Wild applause. “I’ve always believed that term limits are a function of demagoguery.” Cheers. “Proposition 13 has been a sacred cow. But you know, it’s time to look at Proposition 13.” It brought the house down, in a gentle sort of way.
The speaker was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but it could have been almost any featured guest at any of the town halls conducted across the state by Repair California, the coalition of groups building support for a citizens’ convention to scrap and replace the state’s Constitution. In this forum, and one the previous night in Santa Monica and at earlier meetings in the Bay Area, most in the crowd were on the same page about what ails California and what has to go: the two-thirds supermajority to adopt a budget, the same supermajority to pass a tax, term limits, rampant special-interest ballot initiatives, Proposition 13, Proposition 8 -- and if you haven’t guessed the rest, simply pore over several years’ worth of Los Angeles Times editorials. This page has long espoused the reform agenda championed by good-government groups and just-left-of-center editorialists and reformers.
But that spotlights an important, although repairable, flaw in the movement for a convention. People who get excited enough about the minutiae of government to come to meetings and swap ideas are, or so far have been, somewhat self-selecting. They know what’s wrong: California’s entire anti-government voter revolt of the last 30 years. No matter how vociferously they agree with one another, though, they haven’t been able to change the minds of the majority of high-propensity voters who, polling shows, are quite happy with ballot-measure decisions that have enshrined profound skepticism of state government and structural impediments to taxes. If individual challenges to voter-revolt initiatives keep failing, the true believers are hoping that a constitutional convention could wipe them away with one fell swoop.
To use a Proposition 13-era analogy, it’s as if liberal Californians see three decades of their conservative neighbors’ ballot measures as the Death Star, impervious to attack in traditional political battle. But get the right Jedi apprentice to fly the right craft to the right place at the right time with the right weapon -- or rather, the right improved California Constitution -- and freedom will again reign.
Forget it. Political reform is not “Star Wars.” Defenders of the supermajority requirement, term limits and the like are not novices; they see a challenge coming to the California they have built, and they are ready for it. California conservatives are hoping for a big year at the ballot box in 2010 and will not be outflanked by a convention. They must be able to identify something in it for them -- a spending cap, perhaps, or an end to “fees” that are actually taxes -- or they will defeat it.
Besides which, the whole point of a convention is to get away from the good-versus-evil mind-set that has the state in gridlock. Reformers may “know” what needs to be done, but progress demands that they be prepared to discuss not only what they want out of a convention but what they would be prepared to give up. The goal must be a constitution that works rather than political conquest.
This page still wants to end the two-thirds supermajority, term limits, robo-budgeting and all the rest. The combination of those restrictions has, in our view, contributed to paralysis in Sacramento, bottled up too much of our state’s revenue and left California lurching from one crisis to the next. But we recognize that the purpose of a constitutional convention is not to create a forum for the fulfillment of our agenda. Instead, it offers the rare opportunity for meaningful compromise that could benefit conservatives and liberals alike.
Out of an exchange of ideas may come politically viable proposals to create a more responsible and responsive government -- with or without the items on this page’s wish list. Likewise, we commit to taking seriously proposals such as a part-time Legislature that, on first blush, sound to us like a counterproductive continuation of the anti-government revolt.
There have been positive signs. Passionate and thoughtful conservatives have participated in forums and salons on fixing the state and have offered terms of engagement. You won’t hear Proposition 13’s most ardent defenders agree that it is on the table or, for now, entertain even the idea of a “split roll” in which taxes on commercial property rise with the market. But how about fixing the rules that allow businesses to use stock swaps to hide property transfers without triggering reassessment? Some Proposition 13 supporters have gotten on board with that idea, just as some liberals and government-reform groups are willing to countenance the supermajority required to approve tax hikes.
Repair California has taken its town halls to the Central Valley and to the Sierra. On Sept. 2, it will host an event in Irvine featuring former Gov. Pete Wilson and co-sponsored by the influential conservative blog Flashreport and organizations such as the Lincoln Club of Orange County. Many conservatives remain skeptical -- but they too are increasingly open to the possibility that a thoughtful convention could benefit this troubled state. Liberals and good-government groups must show them that they embrace the idea of a convention as a conversation and a chance for compromise -- and not as a stalking horse for their long-standing agenda.