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Feckless and clumsy, California's legislators highlight the need for a constitutional convention

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Posted: Monday, July 13, 2009 10:00 pm

There will be no state budget in California until October.

What's truly messed up is that it isn't really a bold prediction on my part. The state is already issuing IOUs and its credit rating barely hovers above "junk bond" status, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone in Sacramento, as serious talks about passing a budget are few and far between.

In a move that highlights just how far the leaders are from having a spending plan in place, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass walked away from Big 5 negotiations earlier this week to protest her ideological differences with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. To review, the Big 5 consists of Schwarzenegger, Bass, Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly GOP Caucus leader Mike Villines.

We need to have a constitutional convention so we can rewrite our laws and create a system that's a little more workable and logical. This yearly song and dance our legislators subject us to must be stopped.

Fourteen states have constitutional conventions every 10 to 20 years, so it's not unheard of or impossible. Even though a constitutional convention in California would feature every bed-wetting special interest group lobbyist clamoring for preferential treatment, it's a necessary evil we must endure. Ninety percent of the budget is tied up in mandatory allocations from past ballot measures. The last time the state passed its spending plan by June 30, "Aliens" was about to premiere in theaters. We can't go on like this.

The Bay Area Council, an advocacy group sponsored by businesses, is pushing for a measure that would mandate a constitutional convention on next year's ballot. It's time to hear them out. Melanie Paulos, communications director for the organization, said the group is pushing for a constitutional convention because it "wants to see Sacramento function again." The four areas the group wants to focus on are the budget, revenue distribution, electoral reform and governance. The group is still finalizing its proposal, but the idea's time has come.

Around this time last year, I was an intern in Schwarzenegger's war room. It's a soul-crushing box with no natural sunlight down the hall from the governor's office. My task was to monitor the media for absolutely anything relating to the governor and send it to his assorted handlers. The position offered me a firsthand look at the utter lack of urgency our legislators displayed during the longest budget standoff in state history.

I was working (more like volunteering) the day Schwarzenegger unveiled the budget clock outside his office as a way of emphasizing the budget crisis. The budget clock featured a digital readout that tracked how many millions of dollars were being wasted while the Legislature went without a budget.

One fond memory is going to the Capitol's cafeteria and seeing the total jump by tens of thousands of dollars in the mere minutes it took to return with my sandwich and Twix. It didn't take long for me to learn not to look at the clock in order to keep my appetite. When they added the framed picture of Jane Fonda due to her induction into the California Hall of Fame, I just started brown-bagging it and avoided the hallway altogether.

Last year's record-breaking stalemate looks more like an appetizer to what will happen again this summer, and the summers to follow, unless the citizens demand a new way of doing things. The special election earlier this year proved Californians are tired of band-aids and temporary fixes.

State law clearly states that legislators must have California's budget agreed upon and in place by the beginning of the fiscal year. For the Assembly and Senate not to have something ready by June 30 every year is not only illegal, it's grossly incompetent. Symbolic gestures like taking a 5 percent pay cut are swell, especially if you are a career politician and can afford it. However, having a budget done when it's supposed to be is a more noble gesture.

Last month, Steinberg naively said, "We're not throwing in the towel on California. There are going to be better days, and we're going to start by getting this done (passing a budget) by June 30."

Surprise. You didn't.

Even more proof that you would be better off throwing in the towel. Only a fresh start will make California any better.

Jordan Guinn is a copy editor at the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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