Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009 | Having just driven the state for the first time in a few years, conversed with Californians about all manner of problems and observed places I hadn’t seen for a while, I return to San Diego in a dubious state of mind. I wrote recently that California’s population in 1978, the year Proposition 13 was passed, was 21 million, about half what it is today. The state government we had in 1978 clearly no longer works in 2009.

I’ll say this about a recession: It concentrates people’s minds on the trees and makes the forest invisible. How can you think about big issues when you’ve lost your job, health coverage and can’t pay the mortgage? The economic system we so recklessly constructed over the past generation, one based on cheap credit, self-regulation, low taxes, lax immigration and federal aid, is collapsing, and it’s become each man for himself.

A few years ago I participated in a conference in Sacramento on breaking California in two, which, given our problems, is not as eccentric a notion as it might seem. Because nearly all the state’s northern counties favor the idea (27 of 31 have supported it in advisory votes), the State Assembly long ago voted to put dividing California on a statewide ballot, though it so far has been blocked in the Senate.

Various plans for the division have been advanced over the years including an East-West split, but the most serious study, done by the Assembly’s Office of Research, would divide the state at the Tehachapis, recreating the historic division of the Spanish era into “Alta” (given to the Franciscans) and “Baja” (to the Dominicans) California. A 75-page booklet entitled: “Two New Californias: An Equal Division,” is available from the Assembly’s Publications Office.

Dividing the state at the Tehachapis, says the study, is the best idea because it represents “a wash between revenues and costs.” In other words, each half would have an equal share of revenue producing and revenue receiving counties. Alta California, with the very wealthy Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties (Marin, for example, pays 215 percent of the average per capita state income tax) would be balanced by the revenue-receivers, Fresno County, with the highest per capita welfare costs; Tulare, with the highest per capita Medi-Cal costs, and Kern, with the highest per capita crime costs.

Baja California would have the same balance, with wealthy counties like Orange and Los Angeles balanced by poorer counties such as Imperial (with the highest per capita education costs) and San Diego, (yes!), which pays just 87 percent of the average state per capita income tax.

The point of this little excursion into federalist fancy is that as California becomes ever more ungovernable, some people are thinking about solutions. California is increasingly looking like places such as Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, amalgams of incompatible interests that have outlived their historical purpose. Or, to choose another metaphor, we resemble a corporate conglomerate, jerry-rigged by an ambitious tycoon and in need of an equity raider who sees that the parts are worth more than the whole.

If nothing is done, my bet is that some day this century, Californians will decide to divide their state. Though Field polls show that support for division has never risen above 29 percent, they also show that Californians’ perception of their state as “one of the best places to live” is down to 41 percent. Twenty years ago, 78 percent of our citizens still believed we had a great place to live. We are in serious decline.

The best current idea for addressing the state’s problems comes from a group named Repair California, a non-partisan coalition of businessmen calling for a citizens’ convention to write a new constitution. Launched a year ago by the Bay Area Council, which represents the Bay Area’s top companies, and supported by Gov. Schwarzenegger, the council believes the state constitution is the main impediment to repairing our worst problems. It is gathering signatures to put the convention on the ballot next year.

Delegates to the convention would be randomly-selected to avoid the problems of electing them (lobbies, money, low turnout) and appointing them (lobbies, money, political influence). It would be a citizens’ convention, with five delegates picked from each of the 80 Assembly districts to write a constitution for submission to public vote.

Short of splitting up, which would require writing two constitutions, such a convention is the best way for dealing with our central problem: how to pay for the services Californians demand from their government. The Legislature, paralyzed by Proposition 13, term limits, lobbyists, money and legislation by initiative, can’t do it, and neither can the governor. The result is that we face crises in education, transportation, water, fire-fighting, prisons and social services to name just six. The ridiculous state constitution, amended 500 times and containing 75,000 words (the U.S. Constitution contains 8,000), had become an impediment to good government.

The central question about a constitutional convention is whether just-plain-folks (chosen from Assembly districts, they will reflect the state’s population distribution), can do a better job than the mountains of lobbyists, politicians and experts who have created the constitutional straight-jacket that now binds us? I find it hard to believe just-plain-folks could do a worse job.

Schwarzenegger calls the idea “brilliant” for good reason. After all, he had the same idea in mind when he was elected. He was a non-professional, non-partisan, non-beholden, middle-of the road politician who believed he could break logjams and roadblocks and get the system going again. At every turn, he ran into an impediment of some kind: constitution, legislature, lobbyists, money, special interest groups.

How do you govern a state of 40 million people with a constitution written for 1.5 million; with an initiative system designed to defeat special interests that has come to be dominated by them? If we start from ground zero, California has a chance to remain cohesive. To that end, we are in need of change, and to achieve that change we need a new constitution.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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