California constitutional convention push fizzles


Proponents of a state constitutional convention that could reshape California’s government have run out of money and canceled plans to put their proposal before voters in November.

The announcement Friday by Repair California, the organization behind the convention bid, raises questions about how effective good-government groups can be in marshaling resources to address Sacramento’s dysfunction.

Repair California seemed well positioned for such a task; its leaders are from the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group that includes some of the largest corporations in the state.

But the momentum backers had built over the summer -- when the state ran out the cash it needed to pay bills and began issuing IOUs, leaving an outraged public demanding change -- has faded. Political analysts say the proponents have had a tough time keeping voters focused on their complicated prescriptions for California’s ills.

Delegates to a constitutional convention, for example, would have been asked to dive into a thicket of conflicting policies and mandates, bureaucratic procedures and the dizzying financial relationship between state and local governments.

“There appears to be no excitement out there for these rather complicated reforms,” said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan publication that tracks political races.

“It is hard to go to the public with these ethereal ideas and have them understand what you are talking about,” Quinn said. “This may be a lesson that reformers need to go with smaller, bite-sized chunks.”

Repair California raised $352,000 in 2009, far less than the millions typically needed in California to gather signatures to qualify a pair of initiatives for the November ballot.

“The money basically ran out,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council. “I’m very sorry we had to call it quits.”

The constitutional convention plan was one of two major drives to address problems that many experts believe lie at the root of California’s partisan gridlock and constant budget problems.

The other effort is spearheaded by California Forward, a nonprofit organization funded primarily by foundations. It is seeking to move its proposals through the Legislature.

The organization’s strategy has been to threaten a ballot measure if lawmakers balk, as they have at past reform proposals. But it is unclear whether California Forward will be able to raise the money needed to take its plans to voters. It has raised $132,000.

California Forward co-chair Bob Hertzberg, a former state Assembly speaker, said that raising money “is an uphill battle because the system isn’t designed for reform. You can’t raise money from traditional interest groups. You need to attract people who believe the system is broken.”

He said his organization would be meeting next week with the backers of a constitutional convention to discuss a possible coalition.

“We’re both fighting for the same thing,” he said. “We just have different ideas about how to get there.”

Anthony York is a Times special correspondent.