Could a Constitutional Convention Break California’s Impasse?

California State Senator Loni Hancock

California State Senator Loni Hancock

“California is ungovernable,” said State Senator Loni Hancock at the state Democratic Party’s E-Board meeting last month – as she bemoaned the fiscal paralysis in Sacramento. We all know that eliminating the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget is essential. But rather than just amend the Constitution, liberal bloggers at the Courage Campaign are teaming up with the pro-business Bay Area Council to push a constitutional convention. Their argument is that California’s constitution is broken on so many levels – that we should just rewrite the damn thing.

A “constitutional convention” brings to mind images of men in powdered wigs signing old parchments, but the reality is that other states have held such conventions – as recently as 1970. A more serious concern is how California will structure such a convention and what would come out of it, not to mention selling the voters that (a) we need it and (b) the end product should be ratified – before anyone even knows what that will be. For progressives, a constitutional convention seems a little abstract – whereas rallying for specific changes appears far more tangible and appealing.

The state is ungovernable for many reasons. Republicans know that California is getting younger and browner (and therefore more liberal), so they bitterly cling to the two-thirds budget rule – starving the state into oblivion. Rigid term limits mean that politicians only look at quick fixes before running for higher office. Prop 13 has decimated the state’s ability to raise its most stable source of revenue, while cities are barred from passing taxes or bonds without voter approval. Budget set-asides have put the state finances on autopilot, while California has dipped to 47th in school funding.

California’s constitution is the third longest in the world (after India and Alabama) – and has been amended well over 500 times. Only the voters can change the constitution, and the courts have broadly construed their power to pass amendments – even if it means taking away rights from a minority like Prop 8. Rather than pass amendments to the Constitution one ballot at a time on an incremental basis, “throw the whole damn thing out” is tempting.

But the Constitution is vague about the process. Two-thirds of the state legislature must call for a convention, but then the voters must allow it to go forward. Delegates at the convention get to draft a new constitution, which only goes into effect if the voters ratify it. Who runs the convention? How are delegates chosen? What – if any – agenda must the delegates follow, and what issue are on – or off – the table? The Constitution is silent on all those questions, leaving backers of a convention proposal to flesh out the details.

Even those pushing for a constitutional convention admit getting two-thirds of the state legislature to call a convention – let alone agree on details – is impossible. State Senator Mark DeSaulnier likes it, but the rest of Sacramento’s leadership is non-committal. So proponents say we must pass a constitutional amendment in 2010 that would allow the voters themselves to call a convention – and then have the voters pass such a proposal.

Two propositions just to start the process? The good news is they could probably be on the same ballot, so we wouldn’t have to wait for two election cycles to kick it off. In other words, proponents would campaign on “Vote Yes on Propositions 15 and 16” (for example) – and if both pass, we would have a convention to draft a new constitution.

But then we would need at least one – probably two – election cycles before we have a constitution that fixes our profound problems. The voters eventually must ratify whatever the convention produces – which means at least another proposition. And if we want at least some delegates to be elected by the people – so that they have a base constituency who can hold them accountable – that would require another election to choose them.

Want a budget that only requires a simple majority of the state legislature – so the right-wing Republican minority doesn’t hold the state hostage? If we call a convention, that won’t happen until at least 2014 – unless the state calls a special election at one point.

What if we don’t elect delegates to speed up the process? Do we want the convention to be made up of political appointees (like the UC Board of Regents or the CPUC), who are more accountable to the powers that put them there? A convention must also reflect the state’s diversity – or else the entire process is questioned. One idea being floated around is to randomly select citizens to be delegates – like jury duty. That sounds totally insane.

Would electing delegates mean that interest groups would try to influence the outcome? Of course, but at least there will be some degree of accountability. Candidates could run for delegate on a platform of what they want to see in the constitution. Given the number of delegate positions, we will probably see a lot of “slates” forming – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Democratic and Republican parties would endorse various candidates.

And what if – after a two-year process – the delegates draft a constitution, but the voters reject it? After our last constitutional convention was ratified in 1870, there have been six failed efforts at passing a new constitution – in 1897, 1914, 1919, 1930, 1934, and 1947. In a diverse state like California, any “consensus” agreement that comes out of the convention – and is substantially different from the current constitution – is bound to have some opposition. Voters don’t pass propositions they don’t understand, and a new constitution that is the complicated product of a compromise will face an uphill battle.

It is why I am currently inclined to oppose the idea of a convention. We can still pick key parts of the constitution that are flawed – and run statewide initiative campaigns to change them. Scrapping the two-thirds budget rule is obvious, and reforming Prop 13 to exempt commercial property is imperative. Repealing Prop 8 is a no-brainer, and I would love to make Prop 218 history. Reforming the term limits law to bring more balance is also needed.

California is in such a crisis that I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind more fundamental reform. But “blowing up boxes” did not work for Schwarzenegger when he proposed a special election in 2005, and I’m skeptical that voters would go along with a brand new constitution. For now, it seems better to wrap our fingers around tangible problems that make California ungovernable – and work to get them reformed. And progressives who have no idea what comes out of a convention would probably agree.

Paul Hogarth

Republished with permission from BeyondChron.


  1. says

    The idea of Convention would only seem plausible if there were some core principals on which the various interests of the various people in this State could agree on. I do not see that as the case, and this is one of the many reasons this State is ungovernable.

    Rather, I’ve taken the tactic of actually hashing out a new State Constitution with fully developed philosophy, means, and ends, as a discussion piece. Something that makes these political pushes more tangible and more understandable to the majority of people, who are on the sidelines.

    This, I believe, will go a lot further for improving things than calls for a convention would. The convention can come later, after the populous debates amongst itself.


    View it for yourself: On facebook as the group “Liberty for California.” or visit the discussion forum with all drafts for viewing and debate at

    -Sean Lowrie

  2. Ross Stone says

    Californians need to be vigilant a State Constitutional Convention, does not result in circumventing or burying Prop.13, the passed ballot measure that caps real estate taxes.

    California’s budge deficit and relentless history to overspend, is scaring away investors and potential employers from CA. Some employers and Investors believe CA is no longer safe to invest money. What investors do see, is a growing welfare state that will continually raise taxes. Until CA gets serious about enforcing budget restraints, many investors and potential employers will not consider California. It is foreseeable, that if a Health Insurance Bill is passed, unauthorized immigrants not covered by Health Insurance might burden CA taxpayer paid medical services.

  3. says

    My detailed response to Mr. Hogarth is posted on my blog Internet Alley. I am the author of the only two Initiatives filed that call for a California Constituional Convention: 09-0018 and 09-0019 filed with the California Attorney General.

    We are organizing California now and we call for a Constitutional Convention. Mr. Howarth is not accruate in his report of Senator Hancock’s statement made at the EBoard. I know because I was present. Senator Hancock said that “AS STRUCTURED California is ungovernable” and she voiced her strong support for a Constitutional Convention, as well as her total support of her friend Rick Jacobs – founder of the Courage Campaign.

    Mr Hogarth calls for a band-aid approach to the serious cancer in our body politic. He is no progressive, when he advocates we not organize and advocate for our ownership rights of our State. For all who want to find our more and join us, we are organizing on Facebook as the “California Constitutional Convention” Group, and as the Registered Campaign Committee: The California Action Network. We need $10,000 to print petitions now, and we are organizing all 80 Assembly Districts in California with leadership teams in place already in most every Assembly District. Many of you may know me as the Internet Community Organizer who called and put together the Obama Brigade’s National Unity Rally (held in over 350 Cities on April 19th 2008) that delivered 500,000 to 750,000 Grassroots Voter to Voter calls into Pennsylvania and delivered the Delegates that delivered the Convention to President Obama. I also put together the Slate for Change that secured 55% of the Elected Delegates to CADEM for Obama People last January 2009. We have 80 core groups in each Assembly District now and will use new on-line tools (Jelly’s and Tumblr) to organize 15,000 to 20,000 signature gatherers over the next 30 days. We are setting up 3 Garage Offices in every one of all 80 Assembly Districts and we are reaching a harmonic with the Students. Labor is next.

    We hope you join us! WE CAN ! ! !

    Fire it up!

    Let’s GO!

  4. says

    Hello Everyone. Back in the day when California had real progressives, and we had organization, and we were able to do great things. We secured the Peoples Right to Initiative, Recall, and Referendum. Thirty-two years later, we secured the 8 hour work day, safe working conditions, and Social Security. We knew who the Money Trust was and who was in it, and more. No one knows their (our) history anymore. We forget about General Strikes, the fight for Women’s Right to Vote. The prosecution and persecution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Joe Hill, and others are forgotten memories. Shame on us all. Now days, those who dare call themselves progressive can not manage to secure a Health Care program that is not sold out to Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and the Wall Street Hedge Funds behind both. Locally, in California, our Public Systems of Education, Public Health and widespread support of Labor are being disassembled before our eyes. Our State Parks are being closed. Libraries are next. Our State Higher Education System, once a promise to all who were willing to work their way out of poverty and meager means is closing off and shutting down. And here we have what in the past would have been easily seen as a shill of the Big Railroads, arguing as a “progressive” against organizing and mobilizing to take political power. Mr. Hogarth is no friend of the people of California. Now is the time to organize. Now is the time to work our fingers to the bone. Now is the time to give all we can to change our State, and change our Nation. California is not ungovernable. I was present at the CADEM Party EBoard in Burlingame a few weeks ago. Senator Hancock said that “As currently structured, California in ungovernable”. Mr. Hogarth forgot to include her caveat. Senator Hancock went on to support the concept of a California Constitutional Convention as needed now, due to the plethora of serious problems that now require more than a piecemeal approach to overhaul. Mr. Hogarth supports a band-aid approach to dealing with serious cancer in our body politic.

    My detailed answer to Mr. Hogarth is posted on my blog Internet Alley and my work to call our California Constitutional Convention is posted along with the links to my two filed State Constitutional Initiatives on the website where we are organizing California as the California Action Network. My response was not posted by

    I welcome any one who wants to join us or find out more, to join our Facebook Group “California Constitutional Convention” or write me directly. My contact information is pubic on my blog and on my Facebook Profile.

    Be the best you can, as good enough is the enemy of our best!

    Paul Currier
    Author of both Constitutional Initiatives 09-0018 and 09-0019 that call for a California Constitutional Convention by Statewide Ballot set for November 2nd 2010.
    .-= Paul Currier´s last blog .. =-.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *