“If we continue to go down this path, we will devolve . . . into a collection of tribes.”

– Dan Walters, state political columnist.

SACRAMENTO

At a hotel two blocks from the Capitol, they came together to share their frustrations. The state is suffering a crisis of leadership, they agreed, and nothing less than a popular insurrection can stop the slide toward mediocrity. In 2010, these reform groups – Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Bay Area Council and others – hope to persuade voters to summon a constitutional convention to put California together again.

Still, even in this room full of good intentions, a consensus about what’s wrong couldn’t conceal the absence of a consensus about what it will take to make it right.

When it comes to deciding who will be represented at the constitutional convention, defining the scope of the convention’s deliberations or even the reforms themselves, the reformers don’t agree.

The real danger, said veteran political columnist Dan Walters, is that the narrow political divisions that define state politics will also “infect” efforts to achieve reforms.

Walters urged a convention that begins “with a relatively clean sheet of paper.” In his view, the state is coming unstuck because it is burdened by a structure of government better suited to the sparsely populated, agrarian society of the 19th century.

In “the most complex and diverse society in the history of humankind,” Walters said, that old framework sinks under its own weight. “It’s a system that’s wonderful for passing the buck, but it has no responsibility or accountability.”

But there is a problem with pursuing a wholesale re-invention of state and local government. The larger and more complex the proposal, the easier it will be to shoot it down.

Former North Bay Assemblyman William Bagley and San Francisco lawyer Andrew Giacomini, among others, urged reformers to manage their expectations. “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Giacomini cautioned, “because if we try for perfect, we’re dead.”

For what was billed as the California Constitutional Convention Summit, more than 300 people came to talk about a range of reforms. Some were basic – open primaries, simple majorities to pass a budget, two-year budget cycles, a modification of term limits. And others were dramatic – a unicameral legislature with smaller districts, abolition or consolidation of counties, a modification of the initiative process.

What remains to be determined is whether Californians can achieve what one panelist called the “civic literacy” necessary to govern such a large and diverse geography.

Former Contra Costa County Republican Assemblyman Guy Houston recalled what he often heard from special interest lobbies: “We know you have a deficit, but we’re really important. You have to take it from someone else.”

It happens, too, in hometown politics. At every opportunity, folks serve up heartfelt, single-subject demands. Don’t cut education. Don’t cut public safety. Don’t cut social services. Spend more on this. Spend more on that.

And, by the way, don’t you dare raise taxes.

Here’s a question: When was the last time you heard someone say, we need to spend more on schools, even if it means less money for programs for the poor – or, we need to spend more on public safety, even it means I have to pay more taxes?

With these demands, we separate ourselves into silos – or what Walters might call tribes. We pretend that taking more for our favorite program doesn’t mean less for others. Or, that spending more doesn’t require higher taxes to pay for it.

Then we are surprised that state and local governments are careening toward insolvency.

Yes, our politicians are to blame, but so long as we live in tribes based on political ideology, profession, party or geography, we are not innocent bystanders.

In a perfect world, we would re-invent state and local government, casting aside a horse-and-buggy structure piled high with afterthoughts.

It’s like the Winchester Mystery House, said, Contra Costa County Democratic Sen. Mark DeSaulnier. “We’ve built lots of rooms, but we didn’t build hallways to connect them.”

Walters offered one of the examples that best illustrates the problem: Who, he asked, is responsible for the quality of the public schools? Is it the governor and the governor’s education secretary? The state Legislature? The elected state superintendent of public instruction? The appointed state board of education? The elected county board of education? The elected county superintendent of schools? The elected school boards in your local district (or districts)? The appointed superintendents in those districts?

The answer, of course, is none of the above. California spends more money on education than on any other single enterprise, but no one is in charge of making it work.

So, in a perfect world, we would start over.

But this isn’t a perfect world. (Maybe you noticed.)

With the current levels of distrust in public institutions and with entrenched interests eager to spend tens of millions of dollars on attack ads, it will be necessary to accept incremental changes.

With open primaries and the authority to enact state budgets by majority votes, the state Legislate just might evolve into a deliberative body capable of pursuing reforms and responding to the big issues so long neglected.

Hard experience has taught Californians that people on the inside will not fix what’s wrong.

“I’m not sure that it can happen on the outside either,” attorney Andrew Giacomini told the reform meeting, “but I think it’s the only shot we’ve got.”