Davis residents and the advocacy group Saving California Communities (SCC) gathered last week at the downtown Seasons restaurant to hear UC Davis Law Professor Christopher Elmendorf speak about the likelihood, legality and logistics of a possible constitutional convention.
At the heart of the movement calling for a constitutional convention in California is the idea that the state’s system of governance is no longer able to effectively allocate resources to essential services at the local level.
Proponents of the convention argue the state’s constitution has been amended and altered so many times that the government can no longer manage the complex task of creating a feasible state budget.
The last such convention occurred in 1879.
Elmendorf explained the process of passing amendments. Amendments can be brought to popular vote by obtaining signatures from the equivalent of 8 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election. There are also statutory initiatives that can be introduced to the ballot which, if passed, function like constitutional amendments. They can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment or popular vote. The statutory initiatives only require 5 percent of signatures from California voters.
Elmendorf said citizens do not see the consequences of policy they vote for, and true monetary tradeoffs are hard to bring to bear to the public.
“Lawmaking through initiatives tends to obscure tradeoffs,” Elmendorf said.
Voters tend to favor simple symbolic changes. These can feel satisfying but in the long run are damaging, he said. Since the legislature is bound to govern based on initiatives approved by the public, the government is hindered from governing effectively. This undermines the public trust in government and makes it harder for the legislature to make changes, Elmendorf said.
“Voters feel powerful but lose confidence in government,” Elmendorf said.
Repair California, an advocacy group partnered with the SCC, drafted two initiatives for the 2010 ballot.
The first initiative, if passed, would amend the constitution to allow voters to call for a constitutional convention by popular vote. According to the California Constitution, only the legislature may propose a constitutional convention that is decided by popular vote and a two-thirds agreement in each house.
The second proposal is a statutory initiative that would then call for such a convention in 2011 if passed by voters in 2010.
The convention would be held by roughly 461 delegates, selected from every county based on population, and three delegates chosen from the 80 assembly districts.
The delegates would deliberate on changes to the constitution and pass the ultimate decision to the general public in the 2012 elections.
The convention aims to allow citizens to participate in amending the constitution but in a more deliberative manner than is possible now, Elmendorf said.
Elmendorf, who is not affiliated with either the SCC or Repair California, noted there are difficulties associated with securing a convention.
“Ballot initiatives are the only things Californians trust,” Elmendorf said.
Any attempt to reform the process, such as requiring initiatives to have higher signature thresholds before appearing on the ballot might be greeted with mistrust at the polls, he said.
There are also organizations that oppose such reform.
“There is a ballot initiative industrial complex,” Elmendorf said, referring to firms that circulate the initiative petitions professionally. “These people will oppose reform and paint it as an attack on democracy.”
Another option for the delegation is to make it possible for Congress to pass its annual budget by simple majority instead of the two-thirds majority that is needed now, explained Elmendorf.
“Allowing the legislature to pass a budget [more easily] will restore public trust and let the legislature focus on structural changes in other areas,” Elmendorf said.
Members of the SCC describe themselves as a diverse group of concerned citizens rather than a political organization or interest group.
“We are promoting discussion and dialogue for now,” said SCC Member Susan Lovenberg, who is also a trustee of the Davis Unified School District.
Don Palm, the dean of the Davis Campus of the Sacramento City College, also presented at Friday’s event.
“We want to include everybody and restore the dialogue that has broken down,” Palm said.
SAMUEL A. COHEN can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.