Reform via the Legislature

Where does this Route Take California?

Under the state constitution, the California Legislature can directly propose constitutional amendments or broader constitutional revisions by placing them on the ballot for voter approval. Constitutional amendments and revisions both must secure a two-thirds vote from the two houses of the Legislature, the Assembly and the Senate. Because no single party generally has control over the required number of votes, constitutional changes recommended by the legislature are usually policies that have broad consensus or, at minimum, bipartisan support.

Recent Decisions

In the June 8, 2010 Primary Election, California voters approved Prop.14, a significant reform measure that was placed on the ballot by the state legislature. Prop.14 will institute a "top-two primary" system in California. Currently, members of each party use the primary election to nominate a candidate to represent the party in the general election. Under the "top-two primary" system, all voters will have a chance to vote for all candidates running in the primary. Only the top two-vote getters will then proceed to the general election, regardless of their partisan affiliation.

In the same Primary Election, voters turned down Prop.15, which would have established a pilot program for public campaign funding of Secretary of State candidates in the 2014 and 2018 elections.

In addition, the California State Assembly and Senate each created Select Committees on Improving State Government in 2009 to consider further reform measures.

    Constitutional Revision Commission

Though the Legislature can initiate its own constitutional reforms, lawmakers also have the option of convening a panel of experts, known as a Constitutional Revision Commission, to review the state’s current constitutional structure and recommend changes. These recommendations may then be considered by the Legislature, which can place them before voters by a two-thirds vote. At the end, a majority of California voters would have to approve any changes to the constitution. The Legislature has used this approach twice.

How Has this Route Been Used in the Past?

Over the years, the California Legislature has frequently made use of its power to initiate constitutional amendments. Given the super-majority (two-thirds) threshold required to vote changes out of the Legislature, proposed changes placed on the ballot by lawmakers are almost always approved by voters.

The Legislature has made less frequent use of its power to introduce constitutional revisions. Over the past 50 years, it has convened only two Constitutional Revision Commissions, with mixed success. In 1963, the legislature launched a revision commission that, over the next decade, shepherded through major changes (PDF) to the state constitution. For example, the commission’s work resulted in the creation of a professional, full-time state Legislature. However, the Revision Commission had more trouble finding common ground on ways to reform the state’s initiative process, and some of its other reform proposals were eventually rejected by voters.

In the face of a recession-induced public fiscal crisis in the early 1990s, the Legislature convened another Revision Commission to recommend major reforms to the state constitution. After two years of deliberations, the commission issued its final recommendations (PDF) that called for broad changes to the state charter, including lengthening legislative term limits, requiring the governor and lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket, and replacing certain elected posts — including the state treasurer and insurance commissioner — with appointees by the governor. By the time the commission issued its recommendations in 1996, however, the economy had rebounded and the crisis in state politics had receded. The Legislature showed little interest in constitutional reforms, choosing not to vote on the commission’s recommendations.

What are the Pros and Cons of this Route?

Pros:

  • This process allows the Legislature to propose broader constitutional changes than are allowed under the state’s initiative process. This would allow the Legislature to fundamentally reform the way California’s government is structured and its operations.
  • The Revision Commission route would allow experts, who are most familiar with various constitutional alternatives and their likely consequences, to carefully consider various changes and provide thoughtful guidance to both policymakers and voters.

Cons:

  • The Legislature can block reforms its members oppose. This means that changes unpopular with current elected officials are unlikely to emerge through this route, even if they are needed to improve the quality of state government.
  • Because legislative amendments and revisions require two-thirds of lawmakers to agree on any changes before presenting them to voters, a small minority of elected officials can block changes that many Californians might find appealing.
  • Creating a Revision Commission and giving it time to adequately perform its duties would result in considerable delay before any reform proposals could reach the voters.

Other Observations:

An academic analysis (PDF) of the Revision Commission process published in 1991 offers some important observations about both the benefits and pitfalls of constitutional reform, and the legislative route in particular:

  • Whether in the public and explosive setting of a constitutional convention, as in 1879, or in the relatively calm, almost academic environment of a revision commission some 90 years later, the revision process is intensely political.
  • Revision is time consuming, requiring sophistication, negotiation, compromise, and legal and drafting skills of the highest order.
  • To be successful, revision requires gubernatorial as well as legislative leadership.
  • Given the requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote, revision involves negotiation and compromise.
  • The agreement implied in an extraordinary legislative vote does not guarantee popular support. Thus, an effective political campaign is essential.
  • But even with a good campaign, success at the polls is not assured. Constitutional revision can be a high-risk endeavor and will continue to be so.