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California Needs a New Constitution

In his most recent piece in the New York Times Paul Krugman asks: "Who would have thought that America's largest state, a state whose economy is larger than that of all but a few nations, could so easily become a banana republic?" Here in Sacramento I've watched the disaster unfold before my eyes like a slow motion train wreck. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been an unmitigated disaster for my home state. I always thought it was a bad sign that he was meeting with "Kenny Boy" Lay when Enron was stealing billions of dollars from California's energy grid. Now the "Terminator" is living up to his self-promoted moniker; he aims to "terminate" just about everything I held dear about California.


On the maternal side of my family we go back four generations in the Golden State. My great-grandmother was born in San Francisco in 1879 and my grandmother was born in Sunnyvale in 1910. My mother was born in San Jose in 1930. I grew up in Santa Clara valley, which had been one of California's original 27 counties founded in 1850 and named after Mission Santa Clara in honor of Saint Clara of Assisi, Italy. The Santa Clara Valley I knew growing up was a farming region blessed with some of the most fertile soil found anywhere in the world and a Mediterranean climate perfect for growing everything from tangerines to avocados. I used to pick plums during the summer at family-owned orchards that were within walking distance from our home. I watched Santa Clara valley, once filled with apricot, plum, and citrus orchards, become paved-over "Silicon Valley." I saw Los Gatos change from a foothill hippie town into an affluent bedroom community on par with Beverly Hills. You should hear my mother describe the changes she saw from her childhood years in that same valley.

Liberal Democrats ran the state for many years and under the leadership of Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown California invested heavily in public education. I attended California's public schools and community college, transferred to a University of California, and then pursued graduate studies at a California State University. Today, after receiving my doctorate, I'm a member of the faculty of CSU, Sacramento. The point here is that when I was in college the public system of higher education in California was first rate, the campus facilities were up-to-date and aesthetically pleasing, and the cost of an education was taken care of with modest student fees. It was this top-notch education system that produced the extraordinary technological innovations that ultimately changed how people all over the world work and process information. It used to be "common sense" that investing in education would pay future dividends for the state. And without these investments in California's education system you might not be reading this right now on a PC and I might not be sending it -- whizz-bang! -- over a global computer network. All I'm trying to say is that California is important, and not just for the United States.

Two weekends ago my wife and I visited wineries in the foothills of Amador County and while the hot sun beat down on us we could see the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Last weekend we were in Point Reyes where we showed our daughter rare bird species and an incredible shoreline on the edge of a continent. What other state has this kind of topography? California's state parks are among the most treasured in the world.

And what are the proposals of the Republican governor and our legislative "leaders" to deal with the state's fiscal crisis -- a crisis of their own creation? They want to declare war on California's public institutions. The governor and his extremist minority, working hand-in-glove with spineless and inept Democrats, are aiming to privatize or abolish the public works that millions of people built up over decades. They want to cut out the heart of state services aimed at health care and child protection and schools and libraries and fisheries and community centers and parks and education and everything else they can get their filthy hands on. Earlier generations of Californians painstakingly put in place a vibrant public sector that was the envy of the world. And it was tremendously successful. But today, in 2009, an ignorant movie star governor along with a gaggle of nihilistic right-wingers and fearful Democrats, who have neither imagination nor "vision," are turning California into a fifth-rate banana republic.

And I ask you: Is this the kind of governance we elected these people to pursue?

Once these draconian cuts are enacted it will be far more difficult to reverse them.

So we better stop them now.

California needs a Constitutional Convention before any of these miserable budget cuts can be carried out. If Arnold and the Spineless Democrats can waste state money holding failed ballot initiatives and "special elections" they can set aside a little cash for a Constitutional Convention. An extremist, nihilistic minority that does not value government in any form (unless it is doling out contracts or waivers to private corporations) has hijacked our state government. The state would be in much better shape with the following reforms:

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  • Double the number of State Assembly members and State Senators. The current numbers, 80 Assembly members and 40 Senators, means that State Senators represent more constituents than Congressional Representatives. It's predicted that California is going to have 40 million people over the next decade. Doubling the numbers to 160 Assembly members and 80 Senators would increase the representation of the state and provide for smaller districts. It would do far more for "democracy" than a thousand ballot initiatives, "special elections," or recalls. (It would have the added benefit of pulling down from their high horses many of these useless legislators who are drunk on their own self-importance.)
  • End the term limit requirement. The Republican minority loves term limits because it puts the state firmly in the hands of corporate lobbyists and big financial interests and provides an endless conveyor belt of inexperienced "leaders" in the Assembly and Senate. The United States Congress has no term limits and neither should the United States' most populated state. Term limits are why the Democrats have "leaders" like Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, two of the worst "negotiators" in the state's political history. What haven't these two ham-handed amateurs forked over to the Republicans? The open primary? Caps on legislative salaries? Pointless ballot initiatives? Selling off state assets? What else is there to give away? When are they going to stand up for their own Democratic constituencies? Arnold's got a dismal 30 percent approval rating and Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the state. But they keep capitulating to him. Sometimes I think they're among the last people in the state who are still star-struck over Arnold's celebrity.
  • End the "supermajority" rule that gives the far-right minority veto power over the state's budget. The Republican minority has been triangulating with Arnold to block passing any budget that has a semblance of sanity to it. Only two other states have such a retrograde rule and they're backwaters with a fraction of California's population. This two-thirds requirement has caused more damage to California than all the wildfires, earthquakes, and floods combined.
  • End all state tax exemptions for extractive industries (especially oil) and big agribusiness. Most Californians don't know that huge oil conglomerates that have made windfall profits off the hundreds of thousands of motorists in our state walk away for the most part without paying a dime in state taxes.
  • Triple the number of signatures needed for propositions or recalls and forbid any group or organization from paying people to acquire signatures. Shadowy "astro-turf" groups have been financing bogus initiatives for decades in California, much of it financed with cash from outside the state. Corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars manipulating California voters with propositions that either enact some regressive give-away or nullify legitimate propositions that had grassroots support and were put on the ballot in the spirit of public service.
  • Place strict limits on out-of-state money coming into California to influence elections and impose even stricter spending caps on all political money spent in Sacramento either on lobbying or campaign contributions. As Arnold's cigar-smoking tent "caucuses" prove, Sacramento is every bit as corrupt as Washington, D.C.

We have more creative people in this state than any place on Earth. I think we can come up with a far better system than the one we are saddled with now. Let's have a convention and write a new Constitution that can move California into the 21st Century. And when Arnold and the other Philistines in the State Capitol resist our call we should gather together all the state's employees, all the unions, along with everyone else who wants to protect California's future, and stage a general strike to remind them who they were elected to serve!
by Joseph Palermo

Joe Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

Originally published by The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.