Con Con Pros: Citizens Should Propose Reforms


wunderman2By Jim Wunderman
Special to Calbuzz

California’s state government is broken. This dysfunction has left our state unable to deal with the serious issues of our time.

This hurts our state, it hurts our economy and it hurts Calbuzz readers. California’s dysfunction has made us a laughing stock, but it’s not funny, it’s tragic. Californians are frustrated – they should be – and they want something done.

At least two groups have put together serious, well-recognized efforts at reform: California Forward and Repair California. Backed by an original $15 million investment, California Forward has gathered some of the top leaders in our state, plus experts who know the system from the inside.  They came up with a high-priority list of reforms and whittled them down with a “politics of the possible” filter.  California Forward has produced a reform package with many items Repair California, and my organization, the Bay Area Council, might support.

Some have asked if California Forward succeeds, does California still need a constitutional convention?  The answer is an emphatic, “Yes!”

con_conThe source of our woes are deep, including:  an out of control budget process; the broken balance of power between the state and local governments; our election process; our initiative process; term limits; too many overlapping jurisdictions; a lack of sun setting or review on new government units; too much centralized power; unfunded mandates; and poorly constructed executive and legislative branches.

These problems require a big fix, as soon as possible.

The way to do that is with a constitutional convention to examine our governance system in total, and propose a holistic, systemic fix. State constitutional conventions have been successfully called more than 230 times in the United States. It is time to call one in California.

Repair California has turned in ballot language to call the first California convention in more than 130 years.  The measures would call a limited convention to reform four areas of the constitution:

— The budget process;

— The election and initiative process;

— Restoring the balance of power between the state and local governments; and,

— Creating new systems to improve government effectiveness.

Who will be in the room?  That is the critical question and the makeup of this convention is why this effort will succeed where other California reform efforts have failed.

Today, due to deep cynicism, “who” is proposing the reform matters as much as the reform itself.  Voters have made clear they no longer trust “experts” or politicians, they only trust themselves. Due to the drawing of everyday Californians as part of the delegation, this convention will be a celebration of our democracy and our state’s incredible diversity.  John Adams said of gatherings like conventions that they “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.  It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.”  The convention proposed for the November 2010 ballot will produce just such a group.

How do everyday citizens make good decisions on reform?  Repair California believes you need established experts there as well.  Therefore, a smaller additional group of delegate seats will be divided by population among California’s counties. In each county, a committee of five local government leaders will review applications at public meetings and pick their county’s expert delegates.

This innovative approach mixes the values of everyday Californians with experts chosen by the elected leaders closest to the people.  It also ensures that the convention’s reforms are vetted by a pool of people just like the voters who will eventually decide on the product of the convention.  The “proposers” will be the people.

The United States of America was founded on a unique vision of self-government that became an inspiration to the world.  The founders and the framers believed, as Thomas Jefferson said, “Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government… I am not among those who fear the people.”  Over a half century later, President Abraham Lincoln renewed the spirit of 1776 when he declared that America was a place “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Today, California democracy is a bizarre shadow of the founders’ original vision.  Sacramento has been gathering cobwebs for some time, undermined by special interests, raw partisanship, and citizen disenchantment.  In order to once again become a living expression of the founders’ inspiration, California desperately needs a democratic renewal.

While perfect is not possible in any endeavor, this innovative convention was shaped by the state’s best thinkers and thousands of other Californians to reflect the political, geographic and cultural diversity of this huge state.  It is geared to succeed at the ballot.  California needs fundamental change, and no other reform proposal offers this good of a deal.  Not even close.  It is time to let the people speak.  Call the convention.

Jim Wunderman is the President and CEO of the Bay Area Council and a member of Repair California at www.repaircalifornia.com.

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There are 20 comments for this post

  1. avatar Ave7 says:

    The insurance guys have a shill named Conran, and now the con-con guys have a shill named Wunderman. Is this a pattern? I’m wundering if Clint Reilly is writing all this stuff and making these guys up.

    First off, with apologies to William F. Buckley, I do not want to be governed by average people who look like the society as a whole because the society as a whole is uninformed and impulsive. Representative democracy allows the people to elect better leaders whose job it is to run the government. The constitution is definitely broken, but I’m not trusting the repair job to people who don’t balance their checkbooks.

    Rewriting the constitution would be a significant technical challenge. The founding fathers sent their best and brightest to Philadelphia to accomplish the task — can anyone argue that our nation would have been equally served if random citizens had been given the quill and parchment? (Interesting that Clint/Jim admits membership is the key consideration, but then never divulges just how citizens are selected.)

    Herding this flock of lambs will be an expert panel selected by…counties? Seriously…counties? Nothing could be less democratic. We have 58 counties in California — but half of our state’s population live in just four of them. Taken together, the lessor 47 out of 58 counties contain fewer than 25% of the state’s population, but apparently they get 81% of the appointments. You let counties select “experts” and your con-con will start to look like Bob’s Country Bunker.

    I’d rather put Willie Brown and Pete Wilson in a room alone.

    • Ave7,

      You will not be “governed” by the convention. This is not a governing body. Because any proposals would have to be approved by the voters first, this is, at its essence, an citizen-advisory convention for the state’s citizens.

      The big difference is that the folks at this convention are not going to be making decisions based off of 30 second commercials, but from months of deliberation and expert testimony.

      The ballot measures explain, in the utmost detail, the process by which citizens are selected. It’s no mystery. Read it at Repair California’s website http://www.repaircalifornia.org.

      And Finally:
      The number of County Delegates each county gets will be awarded by population. Again, you can read the ballot measures at http://www.repaircalifornia.org

    • avatar Ave7 says:

      Dear Covert (I swear I’m not making up these names),

      Sorry you don’t like the use of the word “governed” but the definition I was going with was “to exercise a deciding or determining influence on.” True the final recommendation would have to be approved by the voters, but it’s an all or nothing question. Quibbling over the provisions will be lost in the context of apparent reform versus status quo.

      Like it or not, tinkering with a constitution (even subject to ratification) is governing. The founding fathers aren’t called the “founding advisory commission” for a reason.

      You claim that folks chosen in a random lottery of applicants are going to “base their decisions based on months of deliberations and expert testimony,” and not “30 second commercials.” How could you possibly know what these people are going to base their decisions on?

      May I suggest to you that the only people who will sign up for months of expert testimony followed by deep contemplation are either unemployed or are employed by people who have a vested interest in the outcome? (I notice you screen out people active in politics — meaning they actually take civic involvement seriously — but don’t screen out business leaders or others with corporate agendas. More on that later.)

      The citizen selection process is “no mystery?” Pages 4-10 of this 16 page behemoth are filled with complicated gyrations of process and qualifications. The mystery is how you could have made this simple issue any more complicated.

      Nice move though designating former GOP Assembly and Senate Leader Ross Johnson (and four former political appointees) as the “final arbiter as to whether or not the delegates to the convention meet the qualifications.” I’m sure Ross will exercise his trademark fairness in weighing these issues.

      Thanks for briefly elaborating on the formula for awarding power to counties. However, this allegiance to counties and the selection of 175,000 people as a threshold for an extra delegate is just bizarre. 27 out of 58 counties have less than 175,000 people, but they get a free seat at the table for no other reason than they are a county? This means that these citizens get 27 delegates, when by population they are only entitled to nine.

      But let’s move on to more important issues. If this group is capable of seriously weighing expert testimony and arriving at citizen’s solutions, instead of special interest pandering, how exactly do you explain Section 83130 (b) of your initiative:

      “The revision, any amendment, or any related statutory provision proposed by the convention may not include new language, or alter existing language, that (1) directly imposes or reduces any taxes or fees; (2) sets the frequency at which real property is assessed or re-assessed; or (3) defines “change in ownership” as it relates to any tax or fee…”

      You can’t have it both ways – you either trust your process to yield responsible and informed results, free from special interest bias, by removing this special interest favor – or you admit that you have already pre-staged this charade around the big business agenda of your own board.

      After all, by their own admission “Repair California” is just a front group for the Bay Area Council. Thus the most important link for consideration of this initiative is this one: http://www.bayareacouncil.org/bay_area_council_board.php.

      Read these names and you’ll understand why real reform of Prop 13, including an end to special assessment protections for big business, and serious repair to the state-local fiscal relationship through tax restructuring, were taken off the table before the convention was even started.

  2. avatar david says:

    The heart of the state’s dysfunction is the ability of simple majorities of voters to impose supermajority requirements in perpetuity. For instance, Prop 13’s 2/3 requirement on taxes was itself imposed by less than a 2/3 majority. Any “constitutional reform” which leaves this atrocity in place is not a true reform, but simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Since the current con-con proposals explicitly prohibit changing the 2/3 rule, they are yet another waste of time for a state that is rapidly running out of it.

  3. avatar thetruthsquad says:

    The dysfunction has been caused by two things that the majority of folks pushing for the ConCon supported at the time: a 2/3 vote threshold for budget passage and taxes, and term limits. Until the ConCon faces these issues, I’d agree it’s a waste of time and energy. Everything should be on the table, not just the issues that test well in polls.

    • Truth Squad,

      In the spirit of your pen name, I offer several corrections.

      The Constitutional Convention proposals (readable at http://www.repaircalifornia.org) specifically put all vote thresholds on the table. By voting in favor of a convention, voters will in-fact be giving convention delegates a clear mandate to do so.

      Read the initiatives, and you’ll find that term limits are also on the table. So is election reform, initiative reform, budget reform, and restoring the balance of power between state and local government.

      If you don’t like what the convention comes up with, you can vote ‘no’ on the package they come up with. It’s a great idea, and the best reform proposal by far.

  4. avatar Andy says:

    “in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large”

    I think we’re already there and that’s part of the problem

    • I disagree.

      What we have now is an exact portrait of the radicalized partisans of each party. These people can be loud enough and opinionated to enough to make themselves look bigger than they are. In fact, that’s what they specialize in.

      However, they only represents a small minority of the general public.

      The convention offers a way to get more of the state’s average people in the room, people who do not let themselves get consumed by partisan politics and identity.

  5. avatar patwater says:

    I can’t help but be cynical when California’s political elite deride the ability of the people to govern themselves. It reminds me of a three times divorced kindergarten teacher feeling self righteous when they tell a kid not to eat paste. I mean obviously the California people have played a role in current crisis. But the question is not whether they’ve failed in the past. If that’s the standard, how can we trust reform to the “experts?” The question is whether the people can—within this arrangement—produce a good reform proposal; that is whether the people can govern. Denying that—besides being patronizing and elitist—seems deeply anathema to the notion of democracy.

    More broadly, political preference is ultimately a function not of a refined understanding—i.e. some notion of “expertness”—but a person’s values. Clearly we want thought and expertise—that’s probably why there will be experts educating the delegates, but more importantly we want to aggregate the preferences (and derivatively the values) of Californians. We want the process to be democratic, and in the sense that this process is highly representative of the population at large, it couldn’t be more democratic.

    Perhaps if the founders had been more representative of the population at large, we would not have implicitly ossified slavery within our nation’s most fundamental document. Ultimately, regardless of our government’s systemic failings, we as Californians are responsible for the mess we’re in; is it that absurd to think that it’s going to take all of us to get us out?

  6. avatar drtaxsacto says:

    I am skeptical of the convention idea but the arrogance of Ave7 would make me take a second look. The founders (of the US Constitution) were worried about the “passions of the people” but the convention is a two step process – work through the issues and then let the voters judge the results. Does Ave7 actually assume that our society is “uninformed and impulsive?” Less than some members of the legislature?

    • avatar Ave7 says:

      I wish I had made that point in a slightly different way.

      I believe that special interest influence is amplified by the vacuum created by the apathy of the average citizen. Ask your (non-Sacramento) neighbors to name ten of their elected officials and you’ll begin to see my meaning. Now ask them when is the last time they participated in a town hall meeting, contacted their elected official on an issue, or in any other way (beyond voting) participated in the democracy.

      The clear consensus is that Americans want a representative democracy in which they vote for “someone else” to make the decisions, and then throw them out when they are dissatisfied. Somewhat hypocritically they also approved many initiatives which have hamstrung those same elected officials.

      Churchill may have been too harsh when he said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” but I understand where he is coming from. Democracy is actually best form of government — when it is a representative democracy in which the voters elect the legislators, and then the legislators do the legislating. And when it is based on the concept of majority rule (which is not the case when it comes to the California budget).

      Putting randomly selected, demonstrably apolitical citizens in charge of constitutional revisions is not unlike the process that brought us Prop 13, Prop 98, Prop 184, Prop 1A and a host of other budget-busters.

      We can bash the legislature, and Lord knows many of them have earned it, but given the rules as they stand now can we really say they have had the authority to govern?

      Fix Prop 13 by reassessing businesses every year, repeal other initiatives which restrict the general fund, eliminate 1/3 rule over revenue and provide a guaranteed funding stream for local government and you will have solved a large portion of our constitutional problems.

    • Well, don’t I feel like a horse’s patoot? Turns out all we have to do is “fix prop 13, eliminate the 1/3 rule, repeal initiatives, and gaurantee funding for local governments”!

      Glad to see someone still has confidence in the legislature to push forward such an impressive reform package. I was beginning to wonder where that 13% percent approval rating was coming from.

      Sorry, we have to face the facts. California’s institutions have been turned against themselves, and the system is incapable of reforming itself. It’s up to us, and the convention is by far the best opportunity.

      Finally, you ridicule the representation of local governments on the one hand, but then say that garaunteeing funding for the services they provide is one of your top reform priorities.

      Excuse me for saying so, but I’m of the belief that a good way for local government concerns to be heard would be to make sure they had a voice at the convention.

    • avatar Ave7 says:

      Covert Operative,

      Hope you get around to telling us why the noble work of the studious commission needed to be selfishly restricted by a bunch of bay area corporate CEOs through Section 83130 (b).

      But let’s sort out some confusion on your part:

      I never suggested I had confidence in the legislature to pursue reforms — I said we should reform the constitution so the legislature can do the job it is elected to do. Clearly we will need to either put the reforms directly on the ballot through the initiative process, or call a constitutional convention. But I am opposed to an ill-conceived convention incubated in corporate board rooms where some of the most important issues — including our tax structure and business property tax assessments — are off the table for no other reason than they offend those same CEOs.

      Ridiculing your cumbersome process for selecting these numerous committees is not inconsistent with emphasizing the importance of stabilizing local government revenues. But nice try. How about explaining why GOP hack Ross Johnson & Co. are the final arbiters of who gets to be on your commission?

      Your last statement suggests that one must be on the commission to have their voice heard. Which of course conflicts with your other statements that the commission will spend months listening to experts and studying the issues. Which is it? Identity politics or studious commission? You might want to nail that down before hitting the campaign trail.

      patwater makes some good points. For the record, in earlier CalBuzz posts I have mentioned other reforms effecting the Executive Branch such as civil service reform, pension reform, mid year rescission authority, etc. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to put all of this on one ballot in a series of good government reforms, or use the tool of a con-con to get it done all at once.

      But what I am sure of is that “Repair California,” aka the “Bay Area Council,” aka a bunch of wealthy CEOs whose fiduciary duty is to maximizing the profits of their companies not the governance of our state, has given us a trojan horse. It looks like a nice gift on the outside, but inside Section 83130(b) are unpardonable special interest agendas.

    • avatar patwater says:

      Perhaps this is naïve, but profitable business presupposes a functioning legal system and historically in California an excellent education system, aka a competent state government, aka a solid governance structure. So it’s not like they don’t have an interest in making California work again. I think, though, that you’re right to be skeptical given the potential benefit that excluding those Prop 13 type issues could have for the conventions backers.

      But that section also bans a litany of social issues. Maybe that was just put in there so the end product would have a good chance of passing. Those “property tax assessments” you mention are called the third rail of California politics for a reason.

      At any rate, (and I know this is a painful cliché) but we can’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The United States Constitutional Convention was called and filled with delegates with an even narrower interest (that of propertied, old, white males) than the corporations behind the Bay Area Council, but what it produced was pretty damn meritorious.

      And in the interest of full disclosure, for what it’s worth, and at the risk of losing all credibility, I’m just some college kid who loves California a bit too much. The only horse I have in this race is seeing my beloved home state prosper.

      Oh and btw nice pun.

    • I hope you weren’t referencing “Covert Operative”. I’ve been hearing it since day one!

    • avatar patwater says:

      You know, Ave7, perhaps your right. Perhaps those reforms would produce a decently functioning government. And perhaps there is a way other than a Constitutional Convention to enact those reforms (say a series of initiatives). California Forwards proposals would certainly be a step in that direction.

      But we’ve been enacting incremental reform for the past 150+ years. That’s what the initiative system brought us, which solved the immediate problem of the railroads dominating state government, but didn’t solve the underlying reasons why the railroads were able to control state government. Similarly, the revision commission in the 60s trimmed the constitution down but didn’t address many glaring superfluities (constitutional regulations on gill trammel nets come to mind). Term limits got rid of Willie Brown but have turned the legislature into a spinning carousel that has spun faster and faster until we’re at the leadership mess we have today.

      So really the biggest gripe I have with the incremental reform folks is that they seemed acquiescent to the idea that California is destined for more of the same. Your reforms neglect to mention the other legislative branch or a way to deal with California’s creeping morass of overlapping jurisdictions, outdated government agencies, and poorly written regulations, omissions that almost certainly prefigures another governance crisis. No, what we need is to redream California government anew. As Dan Walters puts it:

      “What may have worked in post-colonial, mono-cultural America doesn’t work very well in a postindustrial, multicultural state such as California, especially since we’ve added even more hurdles to decision-making, such as ballot measures and two-thirds votes.”

      Isn’t it time that California had a government worthy of its tremendous power and beauty? In every crisis, there is an opportunity. I just hope California’s political class isn’t too cynical to see it.

  7. avatar jskdn says:

    Mr. Wunderman- You’ve taken the seeds of a good idea and corrupted it by inserting as delegates the kinds of special interest influences that have rightly made many citizens so distrustful of government. Random selection of a sufficient number of delegates from those on the voter rolls is the only way to produce a convention that is representative of the electorate. If those delegates were to go though a considerable education and deliberation process required to make good decisions, the result would be as close as possible to what the electorate would choose if it were to engage in the same sort of process. Of course that can never happen with voters at large. It’s hard enough to get them to do it at the most rudimentary level, and it’s irrational to for them to commit anywhere near the time and energy that a representative of them could and should when deciding for them.

    That’s why I would hope that such a body drawn from the electorate using statistical sampling methodologies would be recognized as truly representative even if, which certainly would happen if such delegates engaged in disciplined education and deliberation, it would produce something different than an largely uneducated and ill-informed electorate might choose. Not being elected with the influence of the powerful entrenched special interests, as our current governments are, would hopefully afford such a body the kind of trust where voters would accept what they produce, in contrary to the deserved lack of trust the existing “representative” government has with the electorate.

    Your argument about the need for experts is disingenuous. I find it hard to fathom that you really believe a delegate body randomly selected from the electorate that engaged in a serious process wouldn’t recognize and utilize experts. This demonstrates either a huge distrust of regular people or, more likely, a fear that they won’t subscribe to your agenda.

    On the contrary, I would expect they would listen to what experts had to contribute and carefully consider their opinions. The problem isn’t that experts wouldn’t be considered, it’s that the “expert elites” could dominate the process and force their own worldview, which is not without its own biases. Mistrust of the elites in this state is also well deserved.

    The delegates in your initiative that will be selected by local government are likely to advocate for the special interest groups that dominate local politics. A local special interest is still a special interest and is often also a state special interest. Not only would a portion of the randomly selected delegates be from the same interest groups that already dominate our governments, those persons that are selected by local politicians would likely have the sort of skill sets to a much greater degree than the randomly selected delegates that would enable them to have disproportionate influence on the product of the convention.

    I urge you to withdraw your initiative and redo it right to get a government that is most representative of the electorate, if the electorate were to do what I expect conscientious delegates to do. That’s if you care about having a representative government that is most representative of the electorate that is supposed to represent. That would distinguish you from the majority of the elites.

  8. avatar michael says:

    I would like to make a general comment, (i am new to this so please bear with me) In addition to the public loosing confidence with politicians and experts, many of us lost confidence with the voting process. Data can be hacked and altered, with the stakes as high as they are I strongly believe that we need to go back to a paper ballot system, and report the results in the local newspapers before sending the results off. Electronic voting machines are manufactured and controlled by corporations and not the voters.
    We need to change the personality types of the people we choose to elect to office. In average joe terms, “we need real people to fill those seats, not a bunch of yuppies who talk the talk” I would vote for some one that has a history of fighting back, legally or otherwise. I want the man who has been in barfights, one who will resist you when he knows you are wrong even if you are a strong adversary. Our real enemy are the special interests that own our yuppies (politicians) we need people with the guts that will stand and fight for us REAL HARD! Who better to represent us than one of us. We should choose an average person that has endured the failures of our government and knows the faces of our real enemies.
    We should strengthen our 10th amendment middle finger to keep us safe from facism. thoughts… comments…?

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