News & Views from 465 California Street

March on Sacramento

Clint Reilly

Rome is burning. But this time, the reformers aren’t fiddling.The CCC – California Constitutional Convention – can’t happen soon enough.

The alarming spectacle of our state capitol going up in smoke has moved the Bay Area Council – a Northern California group of business leaders led by its savvy executive, Jim Wunderman – to call for a constitutional convention to repair California state government.

I have known Wunderman since he was a young star in the office of then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Over 20 years, he has evolved into one of the state’s true leaders. Fed up with the dysfunction in Sacramento, Wunderman hatched the idea of a constitutional convention to set things straight.

The proposal has caught on.

In an unusual turn of events, California citizens are listening to a business group. By a 59% majority, state voters favor a convention to rewrite California’s constitution.

The Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News and Sacramento Bee have backed the convention with editorials. Longtime Capitol observers such as the Bee’s Dan Walters and George Skelton of the Times have given up on the legislature’s ability to self-correct and strongly endorsed the idea.

Widespread support from local governments and citizens signals that a constitutional convention may really occur.

The proposal on the drawing board calls for a 2010 initiative to empower the citizens to call a convention, a reform convention in 2011, and a set of proposals on the 2012 ballot alongside President Barack Obama.

But the voters patience may not last that long. Experts predict another budget crisis lurking around the corner that will fire voter disgust and ignite the kind of popular explosion that produced Proposition 13 in 1978.

We may see the citizens marching on Sacramento as early as 2010. It would be good for our state if they did.

I think a new beginning – symbolized by a remaking and renewing of our system of governance – is exactly what a constitutional convention would bring.

I’m not surprised by the growing firestorm of protest. When I first started running campaigns, I got a rush every time I went to Sacramento to fraternize with legislators, meet with staffers and strategize with the Senate Pro-Tem. But as time wore on, the corrupt culture of Sacramento became profoundly debilitating.

Otherwise honest leaders maneuvered within a corrupt system in which special interests legally controlled legislators with campaign contributions instead of bribes.

Small-time politicos acted like they were big-time power brokers. Big-time interests acted like small-time thugs to protect their turf.

Matters have only gotten worse since 2000. Term limits have turned legislators into lobbyists’ puppets. The 2/3 requirement to approve budgets and new taxes has ushered in minority rule. Our reliance on the income tax has robbed the state of a stable, predictable revenue stream to finance government. Special interests have contributed more than $1 billion to state campaigns since 2001. They have blocked vital reforms in our prisons and schools.

Budgeting the biggest state in America and the globe’s sixth largest economy has become an embarrassing exercise in gerrymandered accounting and month-to-month robbery of cities to pay the state’s bills.

Reform candidates for the legislature face an amoral avalanche of smears and character assassination via special interest-financed television commercials and mailings. I speak from personal experience: In 2006 when my wife, Janet, ran for the Assembly, she was targeted with a $3 million smear campaign by Sacramento interests.

Still, a constitutional convention can succeed.

Reform initiatives must have three elements to win. First, they must save taxpayers money. Second, they must reduce bureaucracy and decrease the size of government.
Third, they must benefit the many, not the few – the public interest, not the special interests. A constitutional convention will accomplish all three objectives.

Nevertheless, reform proposals all face the same special interest assault. Somewhere in the fine print, opponents will find fodder for a red herring attack. A massive media campaign will then manufacture the bogeyman.

But today there is no greater bogeyman than the decades of decadence and dysfunction in Sacramento. The Capitol’s last hurrah may be upon us.

Comments (13)

  • I like most of your columns but especially, “March on Sacramento,” in today’s Contra Costa Times. It’s tragic to witness California’s deterioration. Our state’s vast promise has been subverted by systemic dysfunction and a colossal failure of leadership.

    As a young community organizer I participated in the March on Washington (8/28/63) and worked hard to bring about essential social change. As a retiree, I’m ready to participate again and I know others who are ready to join in. Any suggestions?

    Posted by: Dan S. | August 11th, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  • I read with interest your column in the Oakland Tribune today regarding this subject.

    As a long-term California resident and taxpayer, I don’t understand why we
    should take the risk of sacrificing the present protections afforded
    taxpayers (Proposition 13) and creditors in the present Constitution and opt for a new set of laws. Why would we think that the convention would not be taken over by the same majorities who can elect the present
    Democratic-controlled legislature and lead to increased spending and
    taxation. You state the three required elements for success in your column but what makes you think these will control the thinking of the convention? How can you or anyone promise that?

    Posted by: Mark G. | August 11th, 2009 at 4:22 pm

  • I agree that our State Government is ineffective, but a constitutional convention could make things worse. Especially, when it being advocated by corporate CEO’s. Excuse me, but I have a difficult time trusting big business.

    Posted by: Chris | August 11th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

  • Clint, I completely agree with your statements that “reform initiatives must have three elements to win. First, they must save taxpayers money. Second, they must reduce bureaucracy and decrease the size of government.
    Third, they must benefit the many, not the few – the public interest, not the special interests.” That’s why I support the part time legislature reform initiative spearheaded by the group Citizens for California Reform @

    First, it saves taxpayers money – the LAO’s office estimates savings of tens of millions of dollars each year;

    Second it takes our current unlimited full time legislature and their bloated bureaucracy and reduces them to part time 95 days each year in session therefore downsizing government and return decision making back to local control;

    Third, this will break the stranglehold of special interests on our Legislative political class and return public service to Citizen Legislators who serve part time in the public’s interest, then return to their communities to live and work under the rules they make.

    The initiative has been released for petition signing and is looking to qualify for the November 2010 ballot.

    Posted by: Pat | August 11th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

  • Great! then after Sacramento is secured take the battle to Washington… take no prisoners.. kill ‘em all.. let God sort it out. Metaphorically that is. (No Bill O’Reilly disciple here) Meanwhile, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of discontent turned into civil disobedience… rise up and begin anew… smelling the fresh sweet air of victory over tyrannical Government. Of course it’s just wishful thinking; too many are “girly men” … in Ahnold’s “harem.”

    Posted by: R. Mike | August 11th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

  • Any such maneuver to implement a constitutional convention will be as effective as “Farting” in a whirlwind… until humanity rids itself of the demon seed in it’s DNA no improvements can be made. All Republicans share the demon seed… thus dealing with them is like going to a Palm Desert wife swapping party and coming home alone.

    Posted by: Gringo | August 11th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

  • You’ve described the problem and solution perfectly, Clint. However, the biggest devil in the details is Proposition 13. I don’t think homeowners who benefit from that old reform brought about by a righteous populist revolt are going to trade it for a pig in a poke sold to them by corporate interests and smiling trust-me-on-this politicians. If nothing else, the current serial crises teach people that Sacramento can’t be trusted under any circumstances. The economic downturn is accomplishing what never could be done otherwise, cutting spending and whittling away at bloated programs that support state workers in a style to which we would all like to become accustomed.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | August 12th, 2009 at 5:32 am

  • Call the convention NOW!!! We can’t wait for the next breakdown. Let’s get it done!

    Posted by: Yuri | August 12th, 2009 at 7:47 am

  • If, as you state the culture of Sacramento is corrupt, who is going to take
    part in a constitutional convention? Won’t all the corrupt politicians and
    lobbyists be clamoring for a seat on the convention? Won’t the result of a
    constitutional convention be worse than before?

    You owe us some answers:
    1.. Who will have seats on the constitutional convention?
    2.. How will the members of the constitutional convention be chosen?
    3.. How will the convention be kept honest?
    4.. By what ethical standards is the convention driven?
    5.. How will lobbyists be kept out of the convention?
    I think that you owe us a story about how the constitutional convention is
    formed, and why we should expect something out of it better than we have now.

    I fear that a constitutional convention will engrave in stone all the
    problems we have now and will create many new paths to corruption! Please tell me why I’m wrong.

    Posted by: Wayne | August 12th, 2009 at 8:27 am

  • Wayne who wrote on August 12th has it right. Do we need a convention? Yes. But before we vote Wayne’s 5 questions need answering. Otherwise it will be nothing more than a big, expensive, isometric exercise.

    Posted by: Tom Anderson | August 12th, 2009 at 12:04 pm

  • Dear Mr. Reilly:
    I am very please and happy with you e-mail from August ll, 2009. I do love your ver interesting columns.
    Thank you so much.

    Posted by: Clara kuter | August 12th, 2009 at 9:15 pm

  • Government in California would be helped immensely by cleaning up 100 years of “participation” by every interest group with an axe to grind. I would love to see the proposition and referendum system retired to history. Then we could do without the 2/3 majority vote that allows a small minority of special interests to control the business of government. I would also like to see term limits disappear so we can keep experienced people doing our work. YES! Let’s have a constitutional convention.

    Posted by: Nancy Thornton | August 13th, 2009 at 3:18 pm

  • I will hazard the guess that Nancy Thornton is an employee of government. What she wants is exactly what Sacramento would like, power to do what it wants without hindrance from the suckers, er, public. What she defines as an “interest group” is what democracy is all about, contending interests advancing agendas with some sort of compromise struck before the enactment of laws. She would get rid of propositions and referenda, the only means California voters have to rein in unrepresentative and runaway government. And no term limits! Sure, let corrupt lawmakers stay in office until death so long as state workers get their steady payoff in annual salary and benefit increases. Look at Washington where incumbents are retained 98% of the time, a number not even the old Soviet presidium ever pulled off. The result is the Rangels, Jeffersons, Dodds, Conrads of the world enriching themselves year after year.

    Posted by: Banjo | August 14th, 2009 at 6:48 am

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