For $200, Californians with varying ideas can propose a measure that might wind up on the ballot.
One current proposal would call California’s chief executive president instead of governor. Another would mandate displaying the state flag more prominently at a variety of events and public buildings, including above the U.S. flag when they are flown together on the same flagpole. A third would create a panel of officials to explore the possibility of California claiming its autonomy from the country.
Given the eccentric content of some of the measures, some lawmakers have wondered whether the price of admission for the process ought to be higher.
A bill in the state Senate would raise the filing fee for a proposed ballot initiative tenfold, from $200 to $2,000. Opponents say the measure, Assembly Bill 1100, will stifle citizen participation in the political process.
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This year’s effort began after Huntington Beach attorney Matt McLaughlin submitted a ballot measure in February that would have “any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.” Determined to prevent the measure from moving forward, Attorney General Kamala Harris took the measure to court and was relieved of the official duty to write the title and 100-word summary necessary before signature-gathering.
Introduced by Assemblymen Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and Evan Low, D-Campbell, the bill aims to discourage far-fetched proposals, while also covering more of the cost for preparing each title and summary.
“This Sodomite Suppression Act is not the only case we have of, shall we say, loony ballot acts being proposed,” Bloom said. McLaughlin previously attempted a proposal that would make the Bible a required text in public schools.
Low said the state needs to modernize the process and make it “something that should not be taken lightly.”
Lawmakers who oppose the measure say raising the fee will mean big-money interest groups will dominate the ballot submissions.
“The people have created a sacred right to legislate,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, who has worked on initiative reform and voted against AB 1100. “You want to make sure that the right of the people is preserved to challenge their government,” he said, saying that the extra $1,800 will send a message to citizens that their ability to participate in government is less important. “It’s flipped on its head from moving a thing that was supposed to empower everyday Californians to big interest groups,” he said.
Bills in 2009, 2010 and 2011 attempted unsuccessfully to raise the filing fee incrementally to $2,000. Sen. Lori Hancock, D-Berkeley, dropped the last provision. The previous two were both vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wrote that “while well-funded special interest groups would have no problem paying the sharply increased fee, it will make it more difficult for citizen groups to qualify an initiative.”
California is one of 26 states, plus Washington, D.C., that offer initiative or veto referendum rights. Only five have a fee associated with the initiative, with California’s currently second highest, below Mississippi ($500). Washington offers the lowest fee, at $5.
The filing fee for submitting a ballot initiative has not been altered since its debut in 1943.
“We’re an outlier for even having a fee. Most of the states in the country that have a ballot initiative don’t have a filing fee at all,” said Carmen Balber, executive director for Consumer Watchdog. “To make our ballot initiative five times higher than any other state is really contrary to direct democracy in California.”
She said that the process already includes a check on unpopular measures: the signature-gathering phase.
The filing fee for submitting a ballot initiative has not been altered since its debut in 1943. After inflation, $200 in 1943 would be about $2,758 in 2015. The California Department of Justice said that the average cost to prepare each initiative title and summary is $8,500.
A submitted proposal, along with the fee, starts the process off with a 30-day public comment period followed by a five-day amendment period. The initiative then receives a fiscal analysis before being sent to the attorney general for a title and summary. After those steps are completed, the proposed measure is ready for signature gathering. Out of 14 measures submitted last year, only one has qualified so far for the ballot.
Supporters of the bill include California Common Cause, Equality California, and several city and county employees associations across the state. Opponents include Consumer Watchdog, California Taxpayers Association and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
The increased fee in AB 1100 originally started at $8,000 and was amended to $2,500 and then again to its current $2,000. Low said that as the bill traveled from the Assembly to the Senate, there was “concern that $8,000 was perhaps too big of a jump.”
When it comes to raising the fee to much higher numbers, Hertzberg said “you might as well make it $2 million. It’s the government trying to protect their own interest.” He said raising the fee would add to what is already an expensive process. Ballot measure proponents also have to gather signatures and advertise their measures.
If it’s that important, you find 2,000 people who will pony up a dollar.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom, whose bill would raise the filing fee for ballot measures to $2,000
The measure won passage in the Assembly, 46-28. Bloom also predicts passage in the Senate.
“Some of the folks simply want to gain their 15 minutes of fame or abuse the initiative process, but at the end of the day, the fee hasn’t been updated since 1943,” Low said. “If someone is serious, raising the fee won’t be a deterrent.”
Catherine Douglas Moran: 916-321-1199