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Getting to Reform: Lessons Learned from California’s Record of Reform

October 15, 2009

The second panel I got to see yesterday was titled “Lessons Learned from California’s Record of Reform” and it featured four people with intricate knowledge of California’s previous constitutional reform attempts: historian Amy Bridges of UCSD spoke about the 1879 convention; Glen Gendzel of San Jose State spoke on the early 1900’s Progressive reforms lead by Hiram Johnson; former Senate Majority Leader spoke about the 1964 revision commision; and William Hauck of the California Business Roundtable spoke about the 1996 revision commission.

The basic takeaway was this: reform is really hard and doesn’t always work out like planned. Bridges said that more than half of the new constitutions of Western states that went to voters around the turn of the 20th century were rejected. Gendzel told of how the Progressives created the initiative process to give voters a mechanism to circumvent politicians who had been bought off by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which basically owned the state in the early 20th century; now the initiative process is owned by special interests, who collectively are the modern equivalent of the Southern Pacific. In the 60’s, competing interest groups left the commission in gridlock, unable to accomplish anything more than a judicious shortening of the constitution. In 1996, the recession that had originally prompted the creation of the revision ended before reforms could be instituted, pulling the rug out from under the commission’s efforts and leaving the constitution still inadequate.

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