Wednesday, July 15, 2009

California's Constitutional Crisis - Popular Revolt?

California's state government has ground to a halt, utterly dysfunctional. The state that proudly proclaims it has the 7th largest economy in the world can't pay its bills. A very small group of taxpayers have pushed the legislature over a cliff.

The state's constitution is booby-trapped. If the government needs to raise taxes, it takes a 2/3rds vote of the legislature to approve the budget. In a sharply-divided and intensely partisan legislature, that's left the state with a $23-billion revenue shortfall. If the legislature won't approve a tax hike the government can go to the voters in a "special election." That's what it did. 19% turned out. A majority of that 19% said no tax hikes. Paralysis.

Let's face it. It's really hard to get people to get out to the polls to support a tax hike but it's an awful lot easier to get people to the polls to reject a tax hike. You're almost guaranteed to get more to say no than to say yes. And, as this case shows, even 10% of the electorate can bring the state's government to a standstill. Right over the cliff.

But now there's a popular revolt underway. Left and right, voters are fed up with their legislature and their constitution. As the LA Times reports, the public are beginning to take matters into their own hands:

The unraveling budget has spurred groups of the political left, right and center to press full speed ahead with campaigns for what each considers the remedy for dysfunction.

A bipartisan organization sponsored by several foundations is finalizing a menu of potential solutions. Those are expected to include a change in budgeting practices and a possible shift of state-run programs such as health, education and welfare to local governments that may enjoy more public trust.

A deep-pocketed Bay Area business group that includes Google and Yahoo is pressing ahead with plans for a constitutional convention. In that scenario, 400 California residents of all stripes would ponder the state's problems in a months-long session and draft a new blueprint for government that presumably would land on the statewide ballot.

...The last true constitutional convention took place in 1878. Progressive-era reforms meant to overcome the power of railroad barons led to changes in 1911 that ushered in the initiative process. And a commission toiled for more than a dozen years in the 1960s and '70s, enacting a slew of constitutional revisions that included the birth of a full-time Legislature.

..."People are going to be looking for reforms at least up through next year's election," said Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego political scientist. "That will keep the pressure on the Legislature to do something."

Ideas for change abound: a more business-like budget process, election adjustments to lure more moderates, modification of term limits, a higher bar for approval of initiatives.

As a foreigner with a genuine fondness for California, all I can say is "amen."

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