SACRAMENTO - Imagine a state with a logical system of government in which balanced budgets are adopted on time and leaders tackle difficult issues.
That was the vision set forth this week in Sacramento, where advocates of a plan to convene a California constitutional convention filled a hotel ballroom with several hundred supporters.
Discussion at the day-long summit, sponsored by the business-oriented Bay Area Council, revolved around changes to some of the features summiteers blame for gridlocking the state's political process.
High on the wish list were changes to the two-thirds vote requirement in the Legislature for tax increases or budget passage, and reforms to an initiative process that spawns a hodgepodge of different ballot measures in every state election.
"We have tied ourselves in knots with the two-thirds vote," said Lieut. Gov. John Garamendi, whose fellow Democrats hold solid majorities - but less than two-thirds - in the Legislature. "Whatever the minority is, they ought not to dominate the policies of California."
The existing two-thirds vote requirement for a budget makes it unclear who is ultimately responsible for the results, because each party can ultimately say someone in the other party voted for it said Derek Cressman, regional director for Common Cause.
With a majority vote, it would be easier to assign credit or blame.
"The budget process has to be on the table," he said. "The process should have accountability."
Attorney Andrew Giacomini, managing partner at Hanson Bridgett LLP, laid out the legal strategy for a constitutional convention. The main problem is that California's existing, 19th century constitution reserves the power to call such a convention with the Legislature - where a two-thirds vote would be required.
The answer, he said, is in the same initiative process that a convention might reform.
Step one would be to qualify a constitutional amendment allowing voters to call a convention, with step two being a ballot measure to call it.
"From a legal standpoint, this is totally doable," he said, adding that it won't be a walkover. "There are going to be court battles no matter what," he said.
The outcome of any constitutional convention would have to be approved by voters.
Some of the critical questions needed to structure a constitutional convention led to dissonant voices in the event's preach-to-the-choir atmosphere.
One key question: what should a convention discuss?
"We don't have the time or money, I would argue, to fiddle with things that aren't critical," said Zabrae Valentine, policy director at California Forward, a think tank focused on state government reform.
"You're deciding what the convention is before it happens and I think it's a huge problem," responded Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the Courage Campaign, a left-leaning advocacy organization.
Other political reform efforts are moving along outside the constitutional convention movement. Voters in November approved electoral redistricting reform, while an open primary measure has qualified for the June 2010 ballot, where an initiative to reform the two-thirds vote for budgets is also expected to appear.
That may mute the calls for a constitutional convention, said Barbara O'Connor, a professor of political communications at California State University, Sacramento.
"Assuming you have some reforms, I would like to wait and see how they turn out," she said.
A survey commissioned by the Bay Area Council found that a constitutional convention might be successful with voters, said pollster David Metz.
The problem, according to Metz: only 3% of those surveyed earlier this month had any real awareness of the constitutional convention proposal.
The opportunity, however, is that some 82% said the state is on the wrong track. "The mood of the public in this state is about as negative as it has been in decades," Metz said.
"It's going to cost a lot of money to do this and we don't know where the money's coming from," Giacomini said. "We know party money and union money is going to be lined up against it."
The Courage Campaign's Jacobs said he remains convinced that a convention is needed.
"What we have is so broken I can't even imagine we'd get something worse out of it," he said.