Columns » John Brummett

Cluttering up our Constitution — as usual

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Proposed Amendment 2 comes down to a basic choice. Will you opt in the interest of desperately needed economic development to vote to put another horribly written article into our state Constitution? Or will you vote “no” to insist we wait two years for the legislature to do a rewrite? At times I lean to waiting, since two years is hardly forever and it seems the responsible course. But at other times I find myself unable to become terribly alarmed about putting gibberish in our state Constitution. That’s largely what our state Constitution is already. Our Constitution says that all public education must be equal. But it says in another place that school districts have the latitude to do more locally than others. Our Constitution contains Amendment 59, once called “Godzilla” by a Supreme Court justice, which was thrown together to minimize the effects of long-overdue property reappraisals and embed favored treatment for farm, timber and utility property. Our Constitution says statewide taxes can be raised only by a prohibitive three-fourths vote of the legislature, except for the most unfair tax, the sales tax, which can be raised by a simple majority and has been increased on a seemingly annual basis. Three times since 1970 we’ve tried to rewrite this Constitution, and the people have been duped into fear of change each time by the business interests benefiting from the arcane, archaic nonsense. All Amendment 2 would do is affix to our Constitution a provision by which the legislature could skip a public vote and issue bonds repayable by the taxpayers to raise uncertain millions for corporations that could use those uncertain millions or uncertain purposes. The bonds could total up to 5 percent of the state general fund and the proceeds could provide unconstrained inducements and subsidies to an employer planning to locate to the state and invest more than $500 million and hire more than 500 people. Other states have won big automobile manufacturing plants by offering fatter bribes. Incentives, I mean. I am persuaded that we could well use what Amendment 2 attempts to provide. But I am equally certain we could well do without the unanswerable questions Amendment 2 raises. The judge getting this lawsuit, and rest assured there’ll be one, will have his own options: Throw up his hands and say he has no idea, or flat make something up. The proposal got lost in the shuffle until late in the regular session of 2003. It was referred hastily, even before the expert bond lawyers knew about it. Now everyone agrees it is written horribly. There are two ways to go with a constitutional amendment. You can make it a general statement of principles, leaving the application to legislation. Or, you can specifically and carefully prescribe and proscribe. This proposal prescribes haphazardly and proscribes not at all. I’ve raised a few questions. Others have raised more. The amendment requires only “plans” by industrial prospects, not demonstrated commitments. It does not restrict the use of the bond proceeds. It says the half-billion investment must be made for the “project” to qualify, not specifying whether that means only the private investment or includes the state subsidies. It puts no time limit on the hiring of 500 people, and, by referring only to a project, might be interpreted to include even start-up construction jobs. It does not say whether the 5 percent of the general fund on which bond limits are based means gross or net revenue. It does not specify whether bonds could be issued up to 5 percent of general revenues every year, or whether only the aggregate of outstanding bonds at any given time could amount to 5 percent of current general revenues. Desperate economic developers point to the ever-worsening human tragedy of the Delta and plead with us to approve this thing despite these acknowledged flaws. They ask us to trust that the legislature would tighten things up in the enabling legislation, never minding that it was the legislature that referred this inanity. l

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