Where’s the revolution?

A short history of Repair California’s short promise

Reformers say hundreds of constitutional amendments, like Proposition 13 and Proposition 98, have straitjacketed the once mighty state of California.

Reformers say hundreds of constitutional amendments, like Proposition 13 and Proposition 98, have straitjacketed the once mighty state of California.


An earlier version of this story appeared in the North Bay Bohemian.

California is still without a budget for the current fiscal year, one month after the deadline to close the $20 billion gap. The problem, however, is not so much in the late budget this year, but that the budget is late every year—in fact, legislators for the Golden State have scarcely passed a budget on time in 30 years. And even if the economic future gets brighter, and legislators manage to pass a budget soon, they will be in the exact same situation 11 months from now—nothing will have changed to make a budget pass with more grace.

For a brief political moment, there seemed to be a solution to California’s never-ending budget crisis: a constitutional convention, called by the people. Repair California, a group started by the pro-business Bay Area Council, was backing the convention. The group appeared overnight to become the darlings of nearly every major newspaper on the West Coast. Their idea to call a convention via a ballot initiative outshone every other proposed initiative for the November 2010 ballot. But as fast as it arrived, Repair California was gone, leaving a stunned populace to wonder, “What happened to our revolution?”

Despite its apparent ties to money and power, the group went broke. Despite positive reaction from the public and media, Repair California couldn’t get enough people to sign its petition. The very forces the group sought to change overwhelmed Repair California.

Taking the initiative

On its website, abandoned since February of this year, the group argued, “The only way to make sweeping, holistic changes to our state government and wrestle our state back from special interests—is through a limited constitutional convention.”

As envisioned by Repair California, a limited constitutional convention would call together a group of regular citizens for what essentially is a big, expensive brainstorming session. Delegates to the convention would propose changes related to government, state spending and budgeting, elections and lobbying only—no changes concerning taxes, marriage, abortion, gambling or anything controversial. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that it could cost tax payers as much as $95 million to hold such a convention.

Repair California’s effort was not the first constitutional convention proposed. In 1879, not 30 years after California joined the union, the state actually did convene a convention, and in 1934 the state authorized one, but did not convene. At least five more efforts were made before 1950, according to Jeffrey Lustig, a professor of government and political science at Sacramento State and the editor of the recently published collection of essays Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good.

The 1879 convention ensured that future efforts to rewrite the state’s guiding document would not be so easy. Where the Legislature used to need a simple majority, it now needs a two-thirds majority to call a convention.

The California initiative has also made it difficult for the state to react to changing times.

In 1978, Proposition 13 froze property tax revenues, introduced the two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget and shifted tax revenues from local to state control.

Many anti-tax activists feared that any constitutional convention would endanger Prop. 13, possibly making it easier for the Legislature to raise taxes.

Since Prop. 13, more and more ballot measures have been passed, putting what amounts to a straitjacket on California’s budget and governance.

One of the most significant is Proposition 98, which requires that about 40 percent of the general fund goes to education. Today, most of the state’s general fund is compulsorily allocated to causes such as education, health care or prisons. Legislators trying to balance the budget are mostly working with that remaining slice of the budget that’s not already preprogrammed.

For the special interests that have secured their funding in the constitution, this system is one that works.

A modest proposal

“It is our duty to declare that our California government is not only broken, it has become destructive to our future. Therefore, are we not obligated to nullify our government and institute a new one?”

That’s from an August 2008 editorial by Bay Area businessman Jim Wunderman, doing his best Thomas Jefferson.

Wunderman is not the most likely candidate to organize a people’s political revolution. He heads the Bay Area Council, which represents the business interests of Google, PG&E and United Airlines, to name a few. Repair California’s spokesman John Grubb says it’s not that simple.

“Dysfunctional government—at some point, it’s not helping anyone,” he said. “A lot of our members were able to see that.”

The commentary was like magic: Newspapers across the state, as well as national magazines, were soon spilling free ink to advance the idea, and Repair California’s own polling showed that 70 percent of Californians of all political ideologies supported a constitutional convention. (A later Field Poll showed about 50 percent of Californians in support.)

In 2008, Repair California began work on two initiatives: The first would change the state constitution to allow voters—instead of legislators—to call a constitutional convention. The second would actually call the first constitutional convention in California in more that 100 years. If the initiative process got California into this mess, the theory went, perhaps it could get California out of the mess.

Lustig said he was so intrigued by the idea that he put his book together as a resource for people when the debate over specific constitutional changes began. Nonetheless, he was surprised, even skeptical, at the Bay Area Council’s support for it.

“In the last 20 years,” Lustig explained, “while public services have been ravaged, there has been a vast redistribution of wealth upward. Even though they talk about the system being broken, it’s been working for some people.”

The biggest obstacle to Repair California turned out not to be unions or anti-tax activists but the signature-gathering companies themselves. Grubb said signature-gathering companies would not circulate his petition, for fear that a constitutional rewrite would fix the initiative problem—the problem being that the process is owned by special interests.

In a recent telephone interview Grubb got right to the point.

“We were blacklisted,” he said.

The group needed 694,354 signatures to reach the ballot. “It comes out to about one in 10 California residents that have to sign a petition,” Grubb said. “There’s no way you can do that without signature gatherers. Even with a big grassroots effort.”

Each signature can cost between $1 and $1.50, depending on several factors, including the deadline to get on a ballot. When Repair California was circulating its two petitions, Grubb said the going rate was $1.35 per signature—with about 35 cents of that going to the actual gatherer. Repair was looking at close to $1 million just to gather the signatures needed.

Signature gatherers can be too pricey for any real grassroots organization. Repair California, however, was not a poor grassroots group, and when California petitioners refused to circulate the initiatives, Repair bused in independent signature gatherers from Oregon and Arizona at an additional cost.

Fred Kimball, head of Kimball Petition Management, which is the oldest signature-gathering firm in California, did not return calls from this reporter, but he went on record in the February 4, 2010, issue of The Economist about his feelings for Repair California, saying flatly, “As a business, I oppose it.”

Hope springs eternal

“This is going to sound cheesy,” Grubb said of Repair California’s brief sortie, “but there were some really touching democratic moments. We knew we had something, but we didn’t know how to proceed, how it would actually work.”

Repair California was breaking new ground, and there were problems. The plan to elect delegates from each community in the state was not entirely democratic, as it called on county officials to choose delegates. It was also extremely complicated. Several pages of the proposal were devoted just to the process of picking delegates.

“The actual proposal to call a convention was way overdetailed,” Lustig said. “It was almost a parody of the problems they were trying to solve.”

There were other problems, too, like funding. The group was able to raise almost $600,000, according to Grubb, and another $1 million in pledged donations that never came through. Grubb alleges that would-be corporate donors received threats from unions and members of the state Legislature. Grubb was vague, but said, “Members of the Legislature told companies they would be iced out if they supported the convention.”

“We were challenging the status quo,” Grubb said. “We were challenging the biggest unions and the biggest companies in California.”

It’s an unlikely point of pride for a man who arguably represents some of the most powerful companies in the world, companies that work with powerful unions.

Repair California’s ties to business, the very ties that normally make initiative efforts possible, turned out to be its undoing. “If they were a grassroots movement,” Lustig pointed out, “they would have had volunteers out there gathering signatures—they were thinking in a very corporate way.”

In the end, Repair California’s legacy could be in the ripple. “I would guess that they were way out ahead of the rest of the state,” Lustig opined. “The Bay Area Council, being representative of high-tech, biotech, alternative energy, I would guess that they were very forward thinking.”

But, Lustig warned, “Any serious change has to come from the ground up. It has to be grassroots.”