Putting California back together

Tom Karako directs the Claremont Institute's Golden State Center.

If this year’s budget quagmire in Sacramento has you thinking there must be a better way, there is. To the extent that California is ungovernable today, it is partly because its legislative and executive branches are too weak and dysfunctional to resist entrenched special interests and non-elected bureaucracies. Fixing these problems requires constitutional change. It won’t be easy, but the time has come to do it.

Over the last 130 years, California’s Constitution has assumed the size of a textbook. The ease of amendment by initiative and referendum has produced endless gimmicks that diffuse accountability, confuse the public and produce thoroughly dysfunctional governance. People from across the political spectrum are calling for a constitutional convention.

If Californians do rewrite the Constitution, it should be revised to resemble more closely the concise federal Constitution: more responsible legislators and executives, stronger control of the bureaucracy and less direct democracy.


Of the many reforms being circulated, the Founding Fathers might approve these six.

Part-time Legislature: Forty-three states have part-time legislative sessions, and California should too. Freed from a yearlong legislative cycle, legislators would spend less time conspiring to make government increasingly complicated and intrusive, and more time in their districts meeting constituents. A part-time Legislature does not mean a part-time government. The execution of laws is constant, but the making of those laws can be done in advance.

A part-time Legislature should not be a “citizen legislature” resembling jurors who legislate as a kind of hobby. With the economy and geography of a small nation, California merits professional legislators to master the job we hire them to do. Salaries should remain the same, lest legislators be limited to the affluent, the corrupt and the amateur.

Hard spending cap: In 1979, voters passed the so-called Gann Amendment by a wide margin, imposing a severe formula of fiscal restraint tied to increases in population, inflation and economic growth. Unfortunately, Gann was eviscerated in 1988 when teachers unions pushed through Proposition 98 by a razor-thin margin, mandating huge increases in education spending.

A spending cap similar to Gann would again be prudent. If it resulted in a surplus, extra revenue could be returned to taxpayers or saved in a rainy-day fund, provided it could not be too easily raided by legislators.

Two-year budgeting cycle: The Legislature should be restricted to figuring out a budget one year, and only in the second year could it consider other legislation.

Eliminate the two-thirds supermajority requirement for budgets: A more controversial but necessary reform would be to reduce the two-thirds supermajority vote to pass state budgets, while retaining that requirement for tax increases. The current system, requiring two-thirds for both, has diffused responsibility without protecting the state from excessive spending. If voters want to give a clear majority of their representation to one party, let the majority prevail -- and let the people judge the consequences. Only three other states require a supermajority for budgets, but 15 require a supermajority to raise taxes.


Unified executive branch: When Americans elected Barack Obama, he got to fill his Cabinet not with a hodgepodge of John McCain and Obama appointees working at cross purposes but with nominees who would implement the president’s policies. Similar unity would improve government in a state as large as California.

It is dysfunctional to have executive officers separately elected and in competition with one another, as are many executive officers in California.

The governor should also have greater latitude in firing and controlling non-elected bureaucrats and public employee unions that pursue their own agendas at taxpayer expense.

Repeal ballot-box budgeting: Budget-making is a complicated process that involves priorities and trade-offs. It is not well-suited to direct democracy, when the people can only register an up-or-down vote.

California’s decades of ballot-box budgeting has helped to produce a monstrous Constitution, with mandates for specific amounts of spending that inevitably tie the hands of the Legislature and limit flexibility.

The need for flexibility was seen when Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) offered up two of his favored programs, in Propositions 1D and 1E on the May ballot, redirecting their surplus billions to pay bills from the general fund. That would have saved the state $1 billion this year alone. But voters’ anger at Proposition 1A’s tax increases understandably doomed 1D and 1E, precluding nuance.

A better system would be to repeal all past ballot-box budgeting and put the programs under the general fund. Legislators would be able to set priorities, and the people would judge the results.

The genius of representative government, James Madison wrote, is excluding the people in their collective capacity from the direct business of governing. Hand the task of budgets back to our elected representatives, the ones we hired to make these hard decisions.

California needs constitutional reform before we can expect sustained fiscal reform. Whether that comes from a package of initiatives or a constitutional convention, it should focus on strong, responsible political institutions and draw on the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution.