You can almost hear promoters of a state constitutional convention saying "Hey Buddy want to trade your cow for some magic beans?" For Jack this deal worked out in the end but for taxpayers being asked to trust those peddling a constitutional convention as a panacea for our state’s problems we doubt things will turn out like the fairytale.
As the Legislature returns to Sacramento after a brief break the continuing budget crisis is the focus of attention. But there are also serious discussions about how to improve California governance.
One of the ideas being promoted as a fix-all is a constitutional convention. While on its face this may seem like a good way to reform state government taxpayers should be wary that such an effort could lead to grave and expensive consequences.
Those most actively pushing for a constitutional convention are in many cases the same government bureaucrats moneyed special interests and far-left ideologues who have been working hard to increase taxes and spending. A convention especially one they could control would provide them free rein to amend the constitution to accomplish their objectives.
Perhaps the most significant concern is the selection process for the delegates whose responsibility it would be to rewrite California’s organic law. In theory the delegates would be chosen at random like jurors. But you can’t force someone to serve and it is common knowledge that the jury selection process itself is frequently manipulated. Additionally there are no established limits on what interest groups can do to influence and "educate" delegates. Without standards and limits what would prevent several hundred delegates acting as shills for their spending interest sponsors from locking into the Constitution new and higher taxes that would be paid by 37 million Californians?
Proponents of a Constitutional Convention argue with wide-eyed innocence that there are appropriate checks and balances in the system. They correctly assert that voters would have to approve any amendments made by the delegates. What they don’t mention is that all the amendments would be lumped together into one measure in a "take it or leave it" fashion.
Let’s look at how this might work in the real world. Delegates to the constitutional convention might provide a provision to cut legislators’ pay a very popular idea with Californians. Also included could be an extension of our already record high sales tax to include services like haircuts and dry cleaning.
Before the new constitution is ratified by voters those interests who would benefit from the billions of dollars of new revenue would spend tens of millions of dollars to advertise the parts of the proposed Constitution that are popular without any mention of its detrimental aspects. For big moneyed interests like government employee unions this would be a bargain: The expenditure of millions of dollars for a potential return of billions.
Here are some likely targets of those backing a constitutional convention. Begin with the basic taxpayer protections contained in Proposition 13 and Proposition 218 — the Right to Vote on Taxes Act. When the subject comes up of doing away with Proposition 13’s mandate for a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature to increase state taxes you can almost see constitutional convention backers salivate.
Another target is the initiative process. Convention proponents would like to see changes that would seriously tamper with the last bastion of political power available to citizens in order to deal with an unresponsive corrupt or indolent Legislature.
A much better solution to address the dysfunctional political climate in California is to allow voters to judge reforms individually on their own merits. For example we at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association believe that virtually all California’s problems are due not to our Constitution but to the make up of the Legislature.
But changes are coming. Voters have already approved reapportionment reform and should start to see the benefits in 2012. Additionally an initiative is being circulated that would allow voters to eliminate the full time professional Legislature and return California to a system of part-time citizen lawmakers who would be more connected to their local constituents and less so to Sacramento special interests.
Yes reforms are needed but these are best accomplished with proper transparency and public discussion. A constitutional convention would be a closed system where a relatively small number of people with questionable allegiances would make decisions for the rest of us and then voters while being inundated with propaganda by special interests would have to read through potentially hundreds of pages — think health care bill — to try to determine what it all means.
So when the constitutional convention backer in the trench coat and fedora pulled down over his eyes offers you some "magic beans" just say "no thanks" and keep walking.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.