Frustrated with steep budget deficits, unprecedented spending, and chronic government dysfunction, citizens in a growing number of states are calling for constitutional conventions. In recent weeks, both former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York governor Mario Cuomo have authored op-eds in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, respectively, arguing that the political circus in Albany compels a constitutional convention. Such efforts are already well underway in California, alongside burgeoning drives in Alabama, Arizona, and Michigan. Altogether, 25 percent of the U.S. population lives in these five states. These growing grassroots movements are a sign of the times.
In New York, a five-week summer standoff in the state senate, characterized by party switches and backroom power-broker deals, ended up costing the state upwards of $125 million amid a legislative stalemate. In California, chronic budget shortfalls have become national news. With the third emergency budget deal in ten months temporarily closing a $26 billion budget gap, the Golden State suffers from an 11.6 percent unemployment rate, which reaches 15 percent in agricultural areas like Fresno. The state is caught in a vicious cycle of declining tax revenues from high tax rates, making each budget deal both painful and temporary.
Momentum for a constitutional convention in the Golden State got underway in August 2008, when business leaders from the Bay Area Council took a trip to Sacramento and found the state in the throes of a now-familiar budget crisis. They determined that only a state constitutional convention could cure its chronic structural problems. “At times of dysfunction such as this there tends to be a ‘throw the bums out’ impulse,” says John Grubb of Repair California, the civic group backed by the Bay Area Council that is pushing for the constitutional convention. “But we believe that if you throw these bums out, the next set of bums will have the same problems. That’s because the system is broken.” By using California’s ballot-initiative process, Repair California is bypassing the state legislature and putting the question of a constitutional convention to voters in November 2010.
California’s last constitutional convention took place in 1879, but the governing document has been amended 512 times since then through a combination of legislative action and ballot initiatives, which have contributed to the cost and dysfunction of state government. The document ballooned to over 75,000 words at one point, and it now authorizes 389 boards, commissions, and agencies with overlapping jurisdictions. This guarantees gridlock as well as the waste of taxpayer dollars.
Repair California’s proposed remedies include governance reform to strengthen the executive branch, budget reforms to rein in spending, and revenue distribution between state and local governments to prevent unfunded mandates. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with every major candidate to succeed him, supports a constitutional convention—with the notable exception of state insurance examiner Steve Poizner, a Republican who so far remains noncommittal on the issue.
New Yorkers are no strangers to the expense of multi-jurisdictional bodies or a stalemated state legislature, either. Policy reforms suggested in New York so far include increasing the governor’s power in budget negotiations; mandating spending caps and a legislative super-majority for tax increases; instituting term limits; and enacting non-partisan redistricting. Other changes might include addressing the state’s chronic inability to renegotiate pension obligations in the event of insolvency.
But in the Empire State, the process of organizing a constitutional convention is far more circuitous than in California, because New York doesn’t have a direct ballot-initiative process. Before voters can even weigh in on the idea, the state legislature must first vote on whether to put the question of a constitutional convention to voters. The whole process would likely take until 2012 to be implemented, at earliest—and that’s assuming state legislative leaders don’t succeed in stonewalling until a review is required by state law in 2017.
Bipartisan consensus is building in favor of a convention, however. So far supporters include not only Giuliani and Cuomo, but also former congressman Rick Lazio and former governor George Pataki. Governor Paterson has released a statement in support of a constitutional convention, while Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, and State Senator Marty Golden have all submitted legislation calling for a convention. But State Senate Majority Conference Leader John Sampson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have yet to declare their support, an ominous sign. Unless they become convinced that it’s in their political self-interest, they can be expected to block these reform efforts and defend the status quo.
Governor Paterson could take a decisive step by submitting constitutional-convention legislation when he calls the state legislature back into session in September to close a new multi-billion-dollar budget gap. There would be no better time to highlight the need for fundamental reform. Public frustration with Albany is hitting a new high, and elected officials should not feel insulated by their 98 percent re-election rate. The growing movement in favor of constitutional conventions across the country in a time of fiscal crisis contains a warning: if legislators won’t lead responsibly, citizens might start leading themselves.