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California's Constitutional Question

SAN FRANCISCO - Last summer - during a previous drawn-out California budget crisis - a Bay Area business group floated a trial balloon.

State government isn't working, so let's hold a constitutional convention to fix it, Bay Area Council chief executive Jim Wunderman wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece.

Leaders of the council write opinion pieces on a regular basis, said John Grubb, its vice president for communications.

But the reaction to the constitutional convention piece was different.

"It was astonishing," he said. "We just had an outpouring, comments from all over the state, from Eureka to San Diego, from all walks of life. They all were supportive of what we are trying to do."

Since then he said, the council has endeavored to convert that enthusiasm into momentum for a constitutional convention. The next step happens Tuesday, when the Bay Area Council sponsors a constitutional convention summit in Sacramento.

"We gave ourselves the deadline of the summit that is coming up next week to hammer down all the research," Grubb said.

That includes legal and political research, including polling, he said.

"The good news is we think we can have major reforms functioning in California within two to three years, which in political time is a nanosecond," Grubb said.

The business group has tried to enlist a broad group of sponsors for the summit, including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of California, and the William C. Velasquez Institute, a public policy organization focused on improving Latino political and economic participation.

"Latinos will soon be the majority in California, and we have a vested interest in not only government reform, but making sure our community is properly represented during the convention development process," Velasquez Institute president Antonio Gonzalez said in a statement announcing the organization's support for the summit. "Acting now to convene a constitutional convention has now become the surest path to rescuing our water resources, improving our schools, and revitalizing our economy."

Summit organizers could not have picked a better time for an event that argues the state's system of governance is broken - lawmakers wrangled for weeks before finally reaching agreement yesterday on a plan to repair a budget deficit in excess of $40 billion. The agreement was delayed because legislators struggled to attain the two-thirds supermajority of votes needed for budget bills.

Even before budget negotiations dragged past the Presidents Day holiday, California citizens were deeply discouraged about the state of their government, according to a January poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The poll found that 75% of state residents said the budget situation is a big problem, and only 14% approved of the Legislature's handling of the budget and taxes.

"We've seen a sharp turnaround in the last two years," Mark Baldassare, the PPIC president and survey director, said when the poll was released. "After the November 2006 election, Californians felt their governor and Legislature would be able to work together, but that their president and Congress would not. Today, Californians' hopes lie in Washington."

The PPIC poll also found a majority of Californians surveyed, 54%, favored lowering the threshold for budget passage to 55% of lawmakers from two-thirds, and that 70% support a strict limit on annual state spending increases.

Those are the kinds of issues a constitutional convention would address, according to Grubb.

"This could put California on a much more sound financial footing because one part of the reforms we would do is reform of the budget process," he said.

That could include a 5% cap on spending increases, and allowing the budget to pass with a majority vote if it's within the cap, Grubb said.

He said the council would also like to see a reform of the ballot initiative process - such as requiring initiatives that would spend money to identify where that money would come from. The group would also like to give local governments and districts more control over local revenues.

"Our overreaching goal is to make California a functioning democracy again," Grubb said.

California hasn't had a wholesale revision of its state constitution since 1879, the council says. In part, that appears to be because it takes a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to get the ball rolling for a constitutional convention.

But Grubb said the Bay Area Council's lawyers have identified a way to do so without getting the Legislature involved.

That would involve a constitutional amendment, placed on the ballot through petition signatures, allowing citizens to call a convention through the petition process. A companion ballot measure would actually call the convention, and specify the topics it can address.

The entire political process could cost $50 million, "which is an awful lot of money," Grubb said.

"Part of the reason we're doing the summit is to get the word out about what's going on," he said.

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