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... And the Perils of the Homeless Billionaire's Think Long Committee

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... And the Perils of the Homeless Billionaire's Think Long Committee

Patrick Walton

"A no-tax pledge needs to mean something," said Jon Fleischman, a party vice-chairman from Southern California who introduced the measure. "If we don't respect the meaning of the pledge, we'll no longer be able to use it to defeat Democrats."

In a previous post, I talked about the promise of the Think Long Committee, formed by billionaire to Nicolas Berggruen, to tackle systemic reform of California's system of governance. Here we discuss the perils.

Berggruen has framed the problem correctly -- California needs big, structural reform -- but it's far from clear that his committee is up to the challenge of reform, at least as it's currently constituted. The group consists entirely of insiders, prominent California business executives and political figures.

In a detailed and thoughtful analysis, former legislative aide David Kersten and his firm identify a number of problems with the membership of the commission, including:

1. It does not include members with significant background and expertise in constitutional and structural reform.

2. It's operating behind closed doors, with no clear way to gather input from the public.

3. By choosing exclusively big names who benefit from the status quo, it's unlikely to produce reforms that challenge the political status quo. Writes Kersten: "The history of constitutional reform in California and other states proves that meaningful constitutional reform challenges the status quo and is inevitably opposed by the political status quo."

4. For a committee devoted to thinking long, the process they have is relatively short, with just four or five meetings over eight months to construct a package of reforms by mid-2011. Writes Kersten: "This is simply not enough time to put together a comprehensive package."

More worrying is something that Kersten doesn't pick up on: the method by which the Think Long Committee wants to reform. A package of a handful of ballot initiatives.

Put simply, that's the poison, not the cure. California has only governed itself by piecemeal reforms, one after one, via ballot initiatives. These measures, while well-intended, are by definition narrow, isolated measures that create all sorts of unintended consequences. The sum of all these ballot measures has been to create a system unintended and unworkable -- the system that the Think Long Committee was formed to fix. Doing more ballot initiatives will simply make the system worse--it won't fix the system.

What the state needs -- and has never had -- is a comprehensive integrated reform. That requires a broad constitutional revision -- either by the legislature, the commission, or a constitutional convention -- that creates a coherent, integrated system. The Think Long Committee should think again -- and embrace that kind of approach. If it does (and makes its process more open and inclusive of experts), it could provide a way to fix California's broken system.

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