Gov. gets second wind as a reformer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he “absolutely” loves the idea of holding a constitutional convention to overhaul state government.

California hasn’t had such a confab in 131 years. But as Sacramento continues to embarrass itself, a citizens’ movement is mounting to call one.

The Republican governor would like the convention to consider, among other things, eliminating some statewide offices -- like treasurer, controller, superintendent of public instruction and, especially, lieutenant governor, all currently held by Democrats.

“It makes no sense that the governor is surrounded by constitutional officers who are trying to derail him,” Schwarzenegger says. “Look at the way the nation runs: The president appoints those Cabinet positions.”

He’d also like another crack at extending legislative term limits.


Under the current limits, the governor says, “the staffs and the special interests are running the Capitol, and the legislators -- the elected officials -- can’t get up to speed in time before they have to bow out and leave. So it is not good for anybody.”

Schwarzenegger has long defended the two-thirds majority vote requirement for budget passage. But after the just-concluded months-long struggle, he’s now willing to consider reducing the vote threshold to a simple majority if spending growth is kept under 5%.

“Let’s have that debate,” the governor says. “You know one thing, what you have now in place is not functional. The rest of the world is laughing at us for having the huge [budget] delay.”

I hadn’t heard Schwarzenegger publicly articulate these things until our telephone interview Tuesday.

Meanwhile, two blocks from the Capitol in a hotel banquet room, 400 good-government types, policy wonks, business leaders and dissatisfied citizens were convening a “summit” to discuss a potential agenda for a constitutional convention. The event was a sellout that overflowed the hotel banquet hall.

“I love that. I love that,” Schwarzenegger said. “That just shows you what the interest is.” Does he favor an actual convention? “Love it. Love it.”

The Legislature could call a convention, but that’s improbable. It’s likely to require a ballot measure.

Although he’s excited about the notion of a convention, Schwarzenegger would open it to a broader range of people than the sponsoring business group, the Bay Area Council. It has suggested selecting delegates “through a random jury pool process” to keep special interests from “gaming the system.” The governor says legislative leaders and good-government groups also should be represented.

Schwarzenegger seems to be getting his second wind as a reformer.

After an initial disastrous attempt to become “the reform governor” -- all his proposals were wiped out in a 2005 special election -- Schwarzenegger now is in a position to make reform his lasting legacy.

If he had departed office last month, his legacy would have been that of a well-intentioned but naive showman who over-promised and under-delivered.

And now, after the debilitating budget gridlock and breaking his misguided reelection promise not to raise taxes, Schwarzenegger’s job approval rating has slipped sharply. It has dropped eight points in the last month, down to 36% of likely voters, according to a poll released today by the Public Policy Institute of California. His disapproval is 55%.

But, ultimately, Schwarzenegger could rebound on reform.

The scorecard will include redistricting reform, which voters approved in November after substantial financial and verbal support from Schwarzenegger.

A tax reform commission created by the governor and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) will recommend in April how to stabilize California’s tax base.

Two other reforms Schwarzenegger long has touted were part of the budget-tax deal. One was a spending cap slated for a May 19 special election ballot; the other an open primary system set for the June 2010 primary.

Any historical homage to his being a reformer hinges on passage of those two ballot measures.

Under the election reform, there would be only one primary open to all voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election.

Schwarzenegger says he wants to make the parties “less relevant.” They’re already pretty irrelevant in California. But the governor says: “Right now, every [candidate] is like, ‘How can I win the primary? How can I kiss up to the party?’

“I think it’s a disservice to the people of California that you have to go through this kind of process and say things that, you know, are not based on reality.”

Yes, like pledging “never” to increase taxes.

Schwarzenegger says he also intends to propose other reforms for the June 2010 ballot. He’s not sure what, but term-limits extension is a good bet. He likes an idea that voters rejected in the 2008 primary: Allow legislators to serve a total of 12 years -- all of it in one house or split between the two. Currently, they’re limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.

“It was a good idea to try,” he said of the limits that voters approved in 1990. “But some things work and some things don’t. This was one of the things that doesn’t work.”

Another thing that doesn’t work, he says, is the mix of statewide offices. “How you going to run a state?” he asks rhetorically. “You’ve got to have everyone on the same team. Not always opposing everything you do.”

I mentioned the lieutenant governor’s office. “Oh, that is absolutely ludicrous.” The governor should choose a potential lieutenant governor as his running mate, as the president does, Schwarzenegger contends.

Eliminating statewide offices is a long shot. Politicians will fight to retain offices that they can potentially run for. And voters like to choose the occupants.

But there is growing momentum for major reforms being propelled by many factions, from the grass roots to the governor’s office. A constitutional convention could be wild.