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Opinion: Now's the time to think of ideas for a new state government system

Micah Weinberg // Published February 4, 2009 in San Jose Mercury News

New America Foundation Fellow Micah Weinberg talks about ideas for a proposed California constitutional convention, including proportional voting, instant runoff voting, and decreasing the number of representatives per resident.

Deep in the doldrums of California's economic woes, with state government unable to pass a budget, Bay Area business leaders have proposed a constitutional convention. Since this could open Pandora's box, a crucial question remains unanswered: Who will wrestle with the demons that come out of the box and lead our state to a better tomorrow? Who are California's James Madisons and Thomas Jeffersons, our Ben Franklins and George Washingtons?

We are collectively experiencing a moment of clarity in California. Even casual observers of politics are waking up to the realization that our system is broken and that our leaders either cannot overcome its flaws or are themselves a part of the problem.

A constitutional convention may be the order of the day — but only if , and this is the big "if," we have some idea of what we would actually like our government to look like when it's over.

Most of the focus up to now has been on process. Can the voters pass a ballot initiative to amend the constitution and call for a convention? Should this assembly be composed of randomly selected citizens? Such questions bring Lewis Carroll's words to mind: "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

Process is very important but so is the product, a workable new system of government to replace our faulty one.

With no plan, there is anarchy. With only one plan, there is a dictatorship. If there are multiple options, with the public freely choosing among them, then and only then do we have a democracy.

Right now, Californians are presented with one option: the two-party system. When it works, it has virtues to commend. In California it is obvious that it is not working.

A constitutional convention occupied with marginal changes may very well result in a worse situation than the one that we have now. And that may be the plan that we are most poised and ready to execute if we don't think this thing through.

So we need proposals to put in place other systems that are more in line with the values and preferences of the public. Proportional voting, for example, would elect a legislature with more than two parties and foster more competition. A recent Public Policy Institute of California survey showed that a majority of Californians would like another major party.

Other reforms have been mentioned: electoral changes including a top-two primary or instant runoff voting; decreasing the number of residents per representative, and free media time for statewide candidates. Others want to reform the budget process by getting rid of the rule that requires two-thirds of state legislators to pass a budget, pass new taxes or overturn Proposition 13.

However, these various reforms have yet to be fully mapped out to show exactly how they would work. If they are to be offered as compelling alternatives during a constitutional convention, we should be thinking about them now, along with all the talk of process. It will be too late once Pandora's box has been opened.

It may be too much to expect the leaders of our state to get into horse-drawn carriages and head to Sacramento to don powered wigs and work tirelessly for a long hot summer to iron out the compromises necessary to turn their vision of a coherent governing system into a reality. It is not unrealistic, however, to ask whether they, in fact, have such a vision.


Micah Weinberg is a senior research fellow at The New America Foundation, which is co-sponsoring a constitutional convention summit with the Bay Area Council later this month. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.