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Fixing California's Constitutional Crisis Won't Be Easy

Filtered photo of a copy of the California Constitution. | Photo/Editing: Zach Behrens/KCET
Filtered photo of a copy of the California Constitution. | Photo/Editing: Zach Behrens/KCET

Because I've worked for state and municipal agencies and been a member of local administrative boards, I've signed my share of "under the penalty of perjury" oaths and sworn that I will uphold the constitution of the State of California.

Wondering what "upholding" might mean as a practical matter, I paged through a copy of the state constitution once. I came away knowing that I should be prepared -- but I'm not sure how -- to defend the state constitution's limit on the number of rounds in a boxing match.

Assembly Member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, offered an even better example of what's wrong with the state constitution, which "contains arcane rules such as what kind of trammel net you can use while rock fishing in Santa Barbara. Really. It's in Article XB, Section 4, passed by Proposition 132 in 1990."

Gatto would like to make the state constitution more rational by making it harder to amend. His point is that special interests with limitless cash, allied to the California's "initiative industry" of paid signature reapers, can get almost anything into the constitution under the current, 50-percent-plus-one-vote rule.

Gatto would require a "super majority" of 55 percent to make constitutional changes.

The editorial board of The Los Angeles Times would rationalize the initiative process by changing how initiatives are treated by the Legislature and enforcing greater transparency in the process.

Under Senate Bill 1253, the Legislature would be required to conduct hearings on constitutional initiatives as soon as their proponents had gathered 25 percent of the necessary signatures. The initiative's drafters would be allowed to rewrite ambiguous or contradictory language during the remainder of the signature gathering.

In addition, SB 1253 would require the attorney general to write ballot summaries in plain English and order the secretary of state to provide an understandable explanation of the initiative's intended effect in the sample ballot.

More importantly, voters would finally get information about major donors to the initiative.

Gatto and the Times have diagnosed the problem, but their medicine is unlikely to be taken. California's constitution is in crisis, but too much depends on the current initiative process which, in turn, depends on the cynical manipulation of the voters' distrust of the government they are being asked to perfect.

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