Thursday, September 17, 2009




Former Gov. Gray Davis calls this “a possible Proposition 13 moment,” adding that “I think something big is about to happen.” What he means is that Californians are so disgusted with state government they might be ready to make wholesale changes. He’s an expert on such moments: the last time one arose, he became the first California governor ever thrown out of office.

In fact proposals for reform are popping up like weeds rising through cracks in pavement. Everywhere there’s an opening, there’s an idea.

This could be a good thing, or a bad one. For while there are many possible wrong ways to make changes, there are probably only a few ways to do it right.

Doing it right is crucial. Moments like this – when California government’s ineptitude is rightly lambasted not only inside the state, but by many outsiders, too – do not occur often and should not be wasted.

Yet, wasting this chance is what many so-called reformers appear ready to do. Foremost among them are backers of a constitutional convention, which could try to change everything in state government, so long as it doesn’t violate the United States Constitution.

These lovers of tinkering with government would like to solve all problems in one fell swoop. The problem is, they might also end up changing a lot that’s right. And by putting all their proposals in one putative new state constitution, they would almost surely guarantee its rejection in the popular vote that would follow any convention. For no document that covers everything can please everyone, which means a proposed new constitution would be targeted instantly from every point in the special interest spectrum.

That makes the approach suggested by a foundation-funded civic group called California Forward far more sane and promising. For one thing, the changes California Forward proposes would be written by scholars and experts, not the hotel maids and field workers and car wash attendants and grocery baggers and car salesmen likely to people a constitutional convention with delegates chosen at random, a la courtroom juries.

“We need to change the culture in Sacramento,” says the group’s co-chair, former Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg. “In Sacramento, everyone acts rationally within the system. Their purpose is to get reelected and then move on to another office. So they vote the party line and they propose bills that are tough on crime, tough on business, saving the wild burros, unrealistic on the environment, and so on, even when they have no chance for passage. Then they can go home and say ‘I proposed this,’ or ‘I fought for that.’ We need to change the incentives to make it in their best interest to do things that are good for all of California.”

Adds Davis, “It’s a system that guarantees confrontation and discourages compromise.”

To fix this, California Forward proposes several reforms that will be shaped into ballot propositions, some of which could come before the voters as early as next fall. The group backs the open primary proposition already on the June ballot. That measure sets up a system listing all candidates together in the primary and then matches the top two vote-getters in the runoff, regardless of party. Davis, not part of California Forward, says this “would force every politician to speak to a broad electorate twice every election year, not just to their own parties. It would make them answer to everyone, which they don’t have to do now.”

California Forward also wants a two-year budget cycle to encourage long-range thinking, with legislators not allowed to propose any bills other than emergency measures during years when new budgets are considered.

Its plan would allow budgets to pass with a simple majority vote, while keeping the present two-thirds majority requirement for passing new taxes. Do this and the majority party would instantly be accountable for its actions. “It would end the game-playing we now see when people are always trying to round up the last couple of votes to get to two-thirds,” says Hertzberg.

California Forward also would require spending one-time revenue windfalls on one-time uses like new roads or buildings, rather than being used to fatten the budgets of ongoing programs, whose beneficiaries then demand spending at the new level be continued indefinitely. And it would require that any new programs passed either in the Legislature or by ballot initiative specify the source of any new money they’ll cost.

Most of these proposals still lack details. “We’re trying to set a framework just now,” Hertzberg says. “We need to change the rules, change the system to create new incentives that lead to constructive behavior by politicians.”

Every item Hertzberg’s group mentions makes sense. Most reforms in its package also are among listed aims of constitutional convention backers. But doing these things via a series of ballot propositions prevents the kind of mischief that could emerge from a convention, while also providing far fewer fat targets for opponents of change to use in trying to shoot down anything constructive.

That’s the right way to do reform. Other approaches are far more likely to fail, and waste a rare opportunity.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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