California constitutional convention

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California Constitution
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A California constitutional convention is under consideration by some California political organizations as a way to fix a system they believe is broken by a series of revisions and amendments to the California Constitution.

Californians have held constitutional conventions twice in the past. The first 1849 and the second, in 1878-1879, gave birth to the constitution that still governs California.[1][2]

The hope of those who support a constitutional convention is that it could "take on the manifold structural problems in California's budget process at a single stroke."[3]

The Bay Area Council has been a leading voice in favor of a constitutional convention. Beginning in 2009, the group has sponsored several summits and meetings to develop support for a convention. Opinion expressed at the summit included "Drastic times call for drastic measures" and "We believe it is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future."[4]

2010 ballot propositions abandoned

Letters requesting ballot titles for two potential 2010 ballot propositions were filed with the California Attorney General in June 2009. Revised language was submitted in October 2009.[5]

However, in February 2010, it was announced that petition drives to qualify the measures for the November 2, 2010 ballot were being abandoned due to insufficient financial support.[6]

Reasons for a convention

Those who support a convention argue that "California is broken" and that piecemeal changes through legislation or ballot initiatives would be unable to solve a system they contend has become "ungovernable."[7]

Problems they point to include:

  • It has the worst bond rating of the 50 states.
  • In 2009, income-tax receipts are coming in far below expectations.
  • If the May 19 ballot propositions had passed, the state would still have faced a $15.4 billion budget deficit. The amount of deficit expected if they failed, as they did, was $15.4 billion.

Issues in California that supporters of a convention believe require a more systematic or "holistic" approach (such as by a far-reaching revision of the state's constitution) include:

  • Any budget must pass both houses of the California State Legislature with a two-thirds majority.
  • A minority of Californians vote. Those who do are "older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population."
  • Voters in California tend to self-sort into regions that lean heavily one way or the other on the political spectrum, leading to the election of state senators and the state representatives who are not very moderate.
  • California's system of ballot propositions is part of the problem, with California as "the only state that does not allow its legislature to override successful initiatives" through what is known as legislative tampering and with no sunset clauses on propositions.[7]

Prop 13 off the table?

In June 2009, the Bay Area Council began efforts to find an independent committee to carry forward their original vision of a state constitutional convention after discussions in early June with tax activist groups who said they would oppose the idea of a convention unless those advocating for it pledged to not attempt to overturn 1978's Proposition 13.[8]

A 2,000-word draft document circulated by the group contained language that would have barred a constitutional convention from changing the property tax portions of Proposition 13. The draft document said:[9]

"Delegates to the convention shall be prohibited from considering and proposing revisions to the Constitution that would affect a. Property taxes associated with Proposition 13. b. Any other direct increases in taxes."

A Field Poll survey of 1,005 California voters was conducted between September 18-October 5, 2009. This poll indicated that about 69% of voters would oppose amending Proposition 13 to allow the California State Legislature to increase taxes with a simple majority vote. Only 27% of those polled would like to see that change. 52% of those polled also oppose the idea of amending Prop 13 in order to tax commercial property at a higher rate than residential property.[10][11]

Supporters of a convention

Individuals and groups in California who have been active in supporting a convention include:

  • The Bay Area Council[12]
  • Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Association.[8]
  • Mark Paul, senior scholar with the New America Foundation. Paul says the constitution is "junked up," a condition he attributes to the ballot initiative process. If allowed to amend the constitution, Paul says he remove specific fiscal language from the document that ties the hands of the California State Legislature and would also make changes to the state's initiative process.[8]
  • Dan Walters, a senior member of the California political press corps, who says, "It's time to take a chance [on a constitutional convention] for the same reasons that the nation's founders took a chance 233 years ago: The status quo is unworkable and intolerable."[12]
  • U.S. Representative Sam Farr, D-Carmel. Farr is a former member of the California State Assembly and he believes that the state's fiscal problems should be blamed on the initiatives enacted in the state in the wake of Proposition 13. He said, "With that passage came a whole new initiative industry, and people in that industry realized that for a few more bucks and few more signatures you could buy a constitutional amendment with an initiative....What those constitutional amendments have done is tie the hands of the Legislature." Farr thinks that California's term limits are part of the problem.[13]
  • The William C. Velasquez Institute.[14]
  • The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. They say, "It's time to end the circus and start fresh, with a new constitution by and for the people who use it and live with it."[2]
  • Gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom who says he would like such a convention to "repeal the two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget so California won't have to issue IOUs."[15]

Opponents of a convention

Chemerinsky in 2007 speaking at the William & Mary School of Law in Williamsburg, Va.

Erwin Chemerinsky

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine law school, says that it is a "false hope" to believe that a convention can change what ails California.[16]

He chaired an elected commission in 1997 that came together to propose a new city charter for Los Angeles. This experience is what has led him to be skeptical of what a constitutional convention can accomplish.

Specific concerns raised by Chemerinsky are:

  • If a convention produced a package of reforms intended to solve the state's financial problems in an enduring way, it is uncertain that the state's voters would go on to approve those proposed changes to the constitution.
  • "There are countless controversial issues that could doom it," Chemerinsky writes, mentioning gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action and immigration issues. He says that a new proposed constitution will either include or not include language about these issues but either way, some people on the side of the issue that does not get treated the way they would prefer will then vote against the package of reforms for that one reason.
  • Even if the convention was limited to fiscal reform issues, it is not clear that voters would approve a revision of the constitution that deletes Proposition 13, whereas many advocates of a convention think that removing Prop 13 is a major reason to engage in a wholesale overhaul of the state's governing document.[16]


  • Patrick Collins, the director of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Center for State and Local Government, says, "The very diversity we need to give the proceedings legitimacy all but guarantees dissent. The question of how best to reform government will not be decided on the true merits of the case at such a gathering but will be a repetition, and telescoping, of our current partisan bickering."[17]
  • Henry S. Noyes, a professor of law at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, says that unintended consequences could well flow from any attempt to convene a convention. For example, he suggests that a convention could exceed the scope of its authority, if it is supposed to only follow a limited agenda: "A constitutional convention occurs, but the delegates go far beyond the convention's 'limitations' and propose far-reaching changes to the constitution. These revisions are placed on the ballot and approved. Because this is a 'political question' (that the California Constitution explicitly leaves the people to decide) and because the people have ratified these revisions by a vote, however, the courts refuse to strike down the proposals even though they exceed the scope of Repair California's 'limited constitutional convention.'"[18]


A Field Poll released in mid-October 2009 indicated that:

  • 49% of voters favor changing the state constitution through a deliberative process with proposals submitted to voters as a package, while 40% would prefer separate initiatives placed on the ballot one at a time.[19]
  • 63% said that delegates to a constitutional convention should include a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds.[19]

Constitutional Revision Commission, 1996

A Constitutional Revision Commission met in the mid-1990s and made a series of recommendations about a wholesale revision of the state's constitution, but this process resulted in no changes.[3]

External links


  1. IndyBay, "Does California Need a Constitutional Convention?," August 1, 2009
  2. 2.0 2.1 Los Angeles Times, "Ready for the devil we don't know," August 16, 2009
  3. 3.0 3.1 Los Angeles Times, "Fixing California: A constitutional convention -- solution or threat?," June 5, 2009
  4. San Francisco Chronicle, "California government has failed us," August 21, 2009
  5. Government Reform Coalition Submits Measures to Call California Constitutional Convention, October 28, 2009
  6. Los Angeles Times, "Constitutional convention? Not likely," February 21, 2010
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Economist," "The ungovernable state," May 14, 2009
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Capitol Weekly, "Council to offload constitutional convention effort," June 25, 2009
  9. Capitol Weekly, "Constitutional overhaul would omit Proposition 13 property tax changes," June 22, 2009
  10. Field Poll Online, "Polling on the Next 10 Questions," October 14, 2009
  11. San Francisco Chronicle, "Field Poll: Support for Constitution Changes," October 14, 2009
  12. 12.0 12.1 Modesto Bee, "Dan Walters: California faces moment of decision," July 5, 2009
  13. The Californian, "Farr backs revising California constitution," July 7, 2009
  14. "Southern California Groups Organize Town Hall to Explore State Constitutional Convention," a June 16, 2009 press release from the William C. Velasquez Institute
  15. Mercury News, "Dan Walters: Picture is cloudy on desires for state government reform," October 17, 2009
  16. 16.0 16.1 Mercury News, "Opinion: Why constitutional convention is wrong for California," May 30, 2009
  17. Los Angeles Times, "The arguing is the argument against a constitutional convention," November 9, 2009
  18. Sacramento Bee, "Constitutional revision could have unintended results," December 13, 2009
  19. 19.0 19.1 San Francisco Business Times, "Voters support changing California's constitution," October 14, 2009

Additional reading