Can California Be Fixed?

The recession has left California, the most populous state in the U.S. and the eighth largest economy in the world, reeling. The latest budget cuts $8.5 billion from education and $2.3 billion from health care. California's governance problems, however, reach back decades; ever since 1978, Proposition 13 has capped property taxes. The fiscal situation is made even more dysfunctional by the requirement that two-thirds of the state Legislature approve any budget, giving the Republican minority disproportionate power.

In the coming weeks, the coalition Repair California will begin the official process of calling a state constitutional convention, submitting ballot-initiative language to Attorney General Jerry Brown's office. Repair California proposes to restructure government through a state constitutional convention. The Prospect talked to John Grubb, official spokesperson for Repair California, about the crisis in California and the emerging movement to reform government.

The Prospect: What makes a constitutional convention necessary for California?

John Grubb: California has become the laughingstock of the nation and, to some extent, the world, because of how dysfunctional our government is. But it's not a laughing matter for the people who live here, and we, in a couple of short decades, descended from having the best education system in the country to having one of the worst. We have the worst traffic in the country. We have a water crisis, a prison crisis, a budget crisis. Pretty much everywhere you look at state government, we have a crisis. And so it's time for a big fix. And it's time to fix the system itself. And the way to do that is through a constitutional convention.

In order to call a convention, you have to put two measures on next November's ballot, one to allow a convention and another to call one. The process begins by submitting two propositions to the attorney general's office for next year's ballot. What's next?

Our strategy after that is that we'll need to collect 1.6 million signatures. And so we tend to do that through a very big organizing effort. Many people -- what hopefully will become hundreds of thousands of people -- are very upset about what's going on in our state capital and the impact it's having on their lives and on the economy. And so they are willing to go out and organize and collect signatures without being paid. We have about [3,000] or 4,000 people that have signed up, and we haven't been actively seeking volunteers yet. We are starting to do that now. That number is just based on people who came to our Web site, signed up, and said they want to help. And so then, once we have our signatures collected, we will have a vote on the constitution in November 2010. And then the convention would happen in 2011, and the people of California should be able to vote on a new constitution by November 2012.

Repair California is not the only group that is interested in calling a constitutional convention.

We have an interesting coalition. On the conservative side of the pendulum, we have the Orange County Lincoln Club; on the liberal side of the pendulum, we have the Courage Campaign, [a gay-marriage group]. We have minority representation through a group like the William C. Velasquez Institute, which represents Latinos. We have a lot of good government groups -- the New America Foundation. Someone from our team speaks with someone from the New America Foundation probably once a day. And then we have a lot of the state's political leaders. We just left the L.A. City Council where they endorsed a constitutional convention. But we also have Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a gubernatorial candidate [San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom], and a lot of other people.

Due to Proposition 13 and the way the current constitution is structured, Democrats have been forced to make big cuts to priority areas, including education. So the call for a new constitution from a liberal point of view makes sense. What is appealing about a new constitution for the right?

Nobody's happy with the current system in California. We pay some of the highest taxes in the union, and yet we get some of the worst outcomes. I mean, having the worst education system in the country -- something's wrong there. So nobody's happy on either side of the political aisle. And when we do polling on the constitutional convention, there really isn't any skew between Democrats and Republicans or conservatives and liberals. It's pretty broad-based, nonpartisan support.

Can you speculate on the likelihood of success and what obstacles you may run into in the next three years? Do you expect legal challenges?

So we just got back polling -- we did a press release on it -- but the measures are winning even after being subjected to opponent messages. We're polling at 69 percent on Prop. 1 and 71 percent on Prop. 2. Those are really good numbers. We only need 50 percent or a simple majority. So the challenges that we'll face are that we will be attacked. We need to raise a significant amount of money; that's just the nature of the beast. And so that's going to be a challenge for us, too, to put that money together.

There's a legal challenge to every initiative that goes on the ballot. This is California. I'm sure we'll get the exact same treatment. But we're preparing for it. We have a team of lawyers who are preparing for a legal challenge. This is a historic moment for California. And I think that the rest of the country and probably a lot of the world are watching what we do. And we are very hopeful that we can meet their expectations.

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