Should it be harder to amend state constitution?

A measure that would make it considerably harder to amend California’s constitution passed its first big hurdle this week.

ACA 10 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, was approved by the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting on a 4-1 vote; it now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Ultimately, two-thirds of the Assembly and state Senate would have to approve putting this to voters as a ballot measure.

The legislation would require that the signatures needed to put constitutional amendments on the ballot come from at least 27 of the state’s 40 state Senate districts, reducing the chance that a few population centers can change the whole state’s guiding document. It also would require a 55 percent majority to approve a new constitutional amendment at the ballot box, rather than the simple 50-percent-plus-one majority now required; however, a simple majority would still be enough to repeal constitutional amendments already enacted.

In a news release, Gatto noted the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times in 223 years, whereas California’s Constitution has been amended 521 times in roughly half the time.

“I would submit that one of the reasons our country has not been torn apart by strife is that, to amend our governing document, you need consensus,” he said. “California’s Constitution has been treated by special interests as just another statute, subject to the temporary whims of the majority of voters who show up and vote in any given year.”

Of the 24 states that have an initiative process, half have geographic-distribution requirements; a few require that votes cast far surpass the simple majority mark; and six have actually forbidden amending their constitutions by initiative, Gatto said.

“A constitution should be a sacred, hallowed document that contains fundamental governing principles and rights. I expect to have the support of my colleagues, who believe in the sanctity of the federal Constitution and the wisdom of our founding fathers, to support taking these steps to ensure California’s Constitution is similarly protected,” he said. “No right is permanent, and no reform has any teeth, if it can be repealed at the very next election.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Dude, it’s time for a new state constitution.

  • JohnW

    Ditto to what RR said.

    However, if we make it harder to amend the state constitution, does that mean it would also be harder to undo all the garbage constitutional amendments that have been voted for previously?

    By the way, George Romney’s claim to fame in civic affairs before becoming Michigan governor was that he led the successful effort to overhaul that state’s constitution. I moved to Michigan as a teen just a few months before his election. But Mitt’s no George.

  • Maryann Klaue

    I fully support ACA 10–it’s currently much too easy to modify the state constitution for the benefit of special interest groups. As JohnW notes, there’s already too much garbage in the constitution. It needs to be “overhauled” and rewritten after exhaustive review, including comparison to other updated and revised state constitutions, such as Michigan’s.

  • DanvilleDemocrat

    JohnW > “…however, a simple majority would still be enough to repeal constitutional amendments already enacted….”

  • JohnW

    Thanks DanvilleDemocrat. I overlooked that part. Would that be a simple 50% statewide, or would repeal also require signatures from 27 Senate districts?

    I also believe there should be some type of sunsetting provision for laws and amendments passed through ballot initiatives. Repeal is problematic.

    Many of those ballot measures could not have passed but for some specific interest group with very deep pockets backing it. Even if something turns out to be bad public policy, it’s difficult to mobilize an organized interest group with equally deep pockets to undo the damage. One generation passes its ballot mistake to the next generation, who never had a say in the matter but have to overcome nearly insurmountable barriers to fix it. That’s why laws should be passed by accountable elected legislatures

  • Elwood

    “That’s why laws should be passed by accountable elected legislatures”

    In CA?

    That’s enough to make a dog laugh!