If you’ve been following the California budget crisis in any detail, there’s a good chance you’ve come across talk of reforming the state constitution. Now it looks like that talk might lead somewhere. Robert in Monterey has the details at Calitics:
That’s why the Courage Campaign, where I work as Public Policy Director, is joining the Bay Area Council and a diverse coalition of organizations to sponsor a Constitutional Convention Summit on Tuesday in Sacramento (you can register at Repair California).
It’s my own personal belief, and one shared by the Courage Campaign, that a Constitutional Convention can successfully fix California’s broken government. In a poll of our members last September over 90% said they supported a convention. And in December we launched CPR for California – a Citizens Plan to Reform California that included some major structural fixes for the state, including fixing the budget process and producing long-overdue initiative reform as well as empowerment solutions such as public financing of elections and universal voter registration.
But the key to success is that a convention must truly be “of the people.” A convention will fail – and may not even be approved by voters – if it is seen as a top-down effort. Remember of course that a Constitution is a social compact, the product of a sovereign people, a recognition that we must have government to survive but that it must also be accountable to the people. For a Constitutional Convention to have legitimacy it must include the people of California at every step of the journey – especially in setting the Convention’s priorities. Additionally, the delegates who attend the Convention must be representative of the state’s population, and not be selected from a small group.
It’s also worth noting some of the limits of a Constitutional Convention. The Courage Campaign believes that all social issues should be off-limits at a convention, such as marriage equality (that is best dealt with by the California Supreme Court, or by the voters if the Court upholds Prop 8). The Convention alone won’t solve our state’s financial woes.
Robert also makes a point I’ve tried to make with friends and family when this has come up: if you look back historically, state constitutions (and our federal one) have always been subject to revisions. Actual conventions rather than amendments have been less frequent, but a number of states have had more than one. California has had two, along with some substantial changes during the Progressive era that I don’t think went through a full convention.
Now, I will freely admit that the results haven’t always been good: see, uh, California’s constitution and its hundreds of amendments, or see the 19th century constitutions revised, in part, to take away voting rights. Other times they’ve been revised to widen the franchise or set up more direct elections or do many other things we’d consider improvements. Like most political processes, a constitutional convention can be put to all sorts of uses, but that’s not reason enough to put it aside entirely. The convention is a process deeply rooted in our system of government, difficult to call because it should not be taken lightly, but there to be called when other processes have failed.