A new California Constitution?


Last week, on the first day of the new legislative year, with both parties still circling the previous session’s unfinished budget business, lawmakers put out a cry for help. Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and Democratic Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Contra Costa County each introduced resolutions calling for a California constitutional convention.

Their sentiment goes something like this: California has had enough, already, of the jerry-rigged districts and restrictive constitutional mandates that have gummed up state government’s no-longer-moving parts. Plan A for California -- government by voter tantrum, legislation by fundraiser, budgeting by daydream -- has served the state poorly, to say the least. So why not Plan B?

In August, the business/good-government group known as the Bay Area Council called for a convention and is planning a Sacramento summit for next year to discuss how to proceed; it may seek an initiative that bypasses the Legislature entirely. The Blakeslee and DeSaulnier resolutions would require a two-thirds vote of each house, then a statewide ballot measure and, if that passes, a convention that would rewrite the state Constitution. To take effect, the document would have to go back to voters. The thrust of each effort is that it is now time to rip California apart and start over from scratch.


Imagine a world without mandatory minimum budgeting for schools -- or perhaps an even higher mandatory minimum. Sweep away Proposition 13 -- or extend the tax-revolt spirit to sales and income taxes. Could a convention produce a new Constitution that does away with Proposition 8, the controversial November initiative banning gay marriage? It could.

That’s the risk of a constitutional convention. With everything on the table, the same interest groups that today fight tooth and nail over a budget resolution or a ballot measure can be expected to do battle even more vociferously over an entirely new Constitution.

Blakeslee’s resolution guards against that prospect by limiting the proposed convention’s scope to three areas: campaign, tax and budget reform. DeSaulnier’s, as currently drafted, would put everything on the table, but the senator said he expected it to be narrowed as it moved through the Capitol. The Bay Area Council may also confine itself to set topics, but its approach may solidify after its summit.

Or, in theory, as a fitting example of California’s dysfunction, there could be dueling conventions. To avoid that fiasco, the various convention planners must agree from the start to sacrifice some of the items on their own wish lists for the greater good of the state. That’s not a bad guiding principle, in the meantime, for the less exciting work of adopting a workable budget.