Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Getting to Reform" conference - a brief review

Last week on Oct. 14 I attended a conference in Sacramento organized by a number of academic organizations at UC Berkeley, CSU Sacramento and Stanford called "Getting to Reform". The event was sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation and was extremely well attended; over 300 people came for the day-long conference, the purpose of which was to assess the pros and cons of various reform approaches being discussed throughout this year, such as convening a constitutional convention or a constitution revision commission.

If you were not able to attend the conference and would like to see what you missed, there are six free videos available for viewing online from the California Channel web site. One of the panels I found most fascinating was the first one, titled, "What do Californians Think About Reform?" where Mark DiCamillo presented findings from a Field Poll commissioned by Next Ten and a number of other groups involved in the conference. Among the key findings:

* 52 percent of California voters oppose changing the current two-thirds legislative vote requirement to pass a state budget with a simple majority vote;
* 69 percent of voters oppose amending Prop. 13 to allow the state legislature to increase taxes with a simple majority vote;
* 56 percent support the idea of increasing the vote requirements needed to approve amendments to the state constitution from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority vote of the people in an election; and
* 75 percent support requiring initiative sponsors to identify funding sources or areas of the budget to be cut when submitting new initiatives that call for additional spending.

More details about this Field Poll are available here.

I think the most salient point I came away with from the conference was made by Bill Hauck of the California Business Roundtable who served on a constitution revision commission convened in the 1990's following a recession and budget crisis. Hauck noted that it took several years for his commission to complete its work and make recommendations, and by the time that happened the call for reform had died down as the economy had picked back up. Assemblymember Anthony Portantino, who spoke at lunch, made a similar observation about a Constitutional Convention, stating the whole process would take five years and by that time the momentum for change is lost.

It seems like a serious dilemma; if meaningful structural or governance reform is going to be achieved in California, setting the stage to get there may take several years, but it is unclear whether the voting public, or the organizations that would back various reforms, would maintain the long-term commitment needed to see reform measures all the way through.

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