Op-Ed: It’s time to declutter California’s messy Constitution
Quick. Can you name an amendment in California’s Constitution? Probably not, but if you vote regularly, you’ve weighed in on a lot of them.
Like other state officials, I have sworn an oath “to protect and defend both the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of California.” Defending the U.S. Constitution means standing up for principles that are essential to liberty and democracy, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Then there is California’s Constitution, which contains arcane rules such as what kind of trammel net you can use while rock fishing in Santa Barbara. Really. It’s in Article XB, Section 4, passed by Proposition 132 in 1990. Why does the state’s Constitution need to spell this out when an ordinary law could do it just as well?
When measures are submitted to the secretary of state to begin the process of qualifying them for the ballot, their backers have a choice of proposing them as either constitutional amendments, which change the Constitution, or ballot initiatives, which change or create statutes. Many proponents opt for the former.
Thus, while the U.S. Constitution has been amended just 27 times in more than 200 years, California’s has been amended approximately 521 times in less than 100 years. By my estimate, the “trammel net while rock fishing in Santa Barbara” amendment was the 490th to our state Constitution, a document that is now 110 pages long. Of the more than 200 written constitutions in the world, California’s is the third-longest.
Special interests have abused California’s Constitution over the years, and used it to enshrine special handouts and other pet projects. And they have been able to do so because it is too easy to amend. The Founding Fathers created arduous thresholds for amending the federal Constitution in an attempt to ensure consensus (two-thirds of Congress must vote for an amendment, then three-quarters of the states must ratify it). Amendments to California’s Constitution can be put on the ballot by anyone who comes up with the money to gather enough signatures. Then, a simple one-time vote of 50% plus 1 is enough to enshrine something forever (or at least until another group puts up enough money to amend the amendment).
Under current campaign law, special interests can pay for unlimited deceptive ads and slick marketing campaigns. And with no requirement for consensus, special interests usually don’t even have to justify their positions, much less compromise or address the concerns of the opposition. Thus, the urban can dictate to the rural, the red counties to the blue ones — or vice versa.
My concern is not partisan. I am a Democrat, but Republicans have also noted that the current system has failed us. As respected Republican ex-lawmaker Bill Leonard wrote on an influential Republican blog, “We must prevent the well-heeled, self-serving proponents from … making constitutional law according to their own narrow interests.”
This year, Democratic and Republican state legislators finally united to create a more substantial rainy-day fund, a significant and fiscally responsible reform. I would hope that the parties can similarly come together to make it harder for special interests to enshrine their pet projects in the state’s Constitution, by requiring broader consensus for amending it. Anything worth placing in the Constitution should take into account majority and minority groups — culturally, geographically and politically.
A constitution should be a hallowed document that lays out fundamental governing principles and rights. It should be amended only to protect and preserve those rights and principles on which a broad consensus can agree. As a starting point toward that goal, I’ve introduced a measure that would require a 55% vote threshold before amending the state Constitution. I believe that this modest change will help ensure that less bric-a-brac gets into that document.
Elected officials are fond of stating how much they love the constitutions they have sworn to uphold. However, we can’t simultaneously complain that our laws and regulations are too byzantine while ignoring the same qualities in the Constitution. It’s time for the people of California to take their foundational document back from special interests.
Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) is chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the California Assembly. https://www.asm.ca.gov/gatto
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