Friday, September 4, 2009

The Winds Of Change

In most states, gubernatorial races (and most political races, for that matter) stand for the same things. This periodic anointment of a new figurehead promises that a) your life will change dramatically after Election Day; b) the other guy is a dirtbag; and c) this is the candidate you’ve been waiting for to make a difference in how that jurisdiction can improve the lives of the voters it serves: tax breaks that never arrive, programs for which you’ll never qualify, and promises of reform of a legislature easily corrupted.

The significance of the upcoming California gubernatorial campaign season, however, cannot be overstated. For a number of reasons (most notably a certain presidential candidate who beat this drum relentlessly, as well as prior candidates for this office who have run in this same spirit), the notion of change has not been at the forefront of the messages we’ve been hearing from the four major candidates. In a desperate attempt to salvage this state from the throws of an administrative catastrophe of epic proportions, the concept of overhauling state constitution has begun to gain serious traction. It has been decades – if not centuries – since a more fundamental conversation has surfaced that puts into play the very foundations of democracy and public accountability in a state so desperate for change. Now that’s change we can believe in.

Mistrust of statewide office is as American as apple pie. But when it comes to California, a new phenomenon has arisen: mistrust of voters. Three gubernatorial candidates have joined an emerging faction of voters and lawmakers alike who complain that voter-mandated spending has created and ultimately worsened the state’s budget troubles. Proponents of initiative reform have estimated that ballot-box spending costs the state about $50 billion annually (a number the Whitman campaign uses with great frequency). Noting that this spending is not necessarily unwarranted, the three candidates have made it a point to reaffirm their support of the theory behind the citizen-imitative concept, but have put forth some logical steps toward reform.

Gavin Newsom has suggested discussion toward a sunset provision for voter mandated spending, so that no initiative could require state spending indefinitely. Newsom’s message has been one of reforming the framework and gaining the opportunity to access changing conditions many years down the road. Democratic rival Jerry Brown has been relatively silent on the general concept of initiative reform, focusing more on his stance of leaving Proposition 13 untouched.

The meat of the debate can be found among Republican primary candidates. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman greased the wheels of the initiative reform debate at a May town hall forum in Tustin when she stated, “In many ways, the proposition process has worn out its usefulness.” Unlike fellow candidates, Whitman has not put forward a direct approach to this position, instead using this stance within her typical campaign fundraising set list.

Like Whitman, Tom Campbell, another Republican primary candidate, favors a constitutional convention to reform the initiative process. Campbell’s contribution toward the conversation of initiative reform is to require proponents of particular propositions to stipulate the taxes they would raise or programs they would cut to pay for their measures. Campbell has also stipulated that a constitutional convention can only take place if it is limited to specific changes which are determined in advance.

Rival candidate, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, has been the most outspoken in the stance against reforming the citizen initiative process. “The people in California make better decisions than the Legislature,” was the retort to Whitman’s town hall comment made by Poizner campaign spokesman Kevin Spillane. Another key Poizner soundbyte: “At this time, Sacramento doesn’t seem able to write a budget, much less a constitution.”

Far and away the most ambitious attempt at reform this state has seen in decades, if ever, the pro-reform gubernatorial candidates should package prospects of a constitutional convention as a ray of hope – the kind of change this state can wrap its hands around.

Take that, “Yes We Can.”

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