In 2016, Hiram Johnson might finally concede defeat

Hiram Johnson, the progressive governor who championed the ballot initiative, served as California’s chief executive from 1911 to 1917.
Hiram Johnson, the progressive governor who championed the ballot initiative, served as California’s chief executive from 1911 to 1917. Library of Congress

The going rate for signatures to qualify the marijuana legalization initiative is $2 a piece. It’s $4 for signatures to raise tobacco taxes, or to extend a supposedly temporary income tax hike on rich people.

Wealthy Republican Charles Munger Jr.’s initiative to restrict legislators’ ability to write last-minute legislation is richer still.

“That sucker is paying $4.50,” said Carl Towe, who runs a hotline that tells petition circulators how much initiative promoters are paying.

Call any time, day or night, to get up-to-the-minute prices being paid by the backers of initiatives Towe tracks, as The Sacramento Bee’s Christopher Cadelago reported last week. Direct democracy is for sale, and the price is especially steep this year.

But wait, there’s more.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative to overhaul criminal sentencing is paying $5 per signature. At 800,000 signatures, the governor will have to pay $4 million to get it on the November ballot.

And that’s not all.

One petition-circulation company is sweetening the unseemly pot by encouraging petition circulators to enter a drawing by submitting 75 signatures, 75 percent of which must be for those of real people who are registered to vote. The top prize: $20,000.

In 1911, progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson thought he was reforming California by persuading voters to create our system of citizen initiatives. In 2016, Johnson’s noble experiment has careened off the rails.

Besides the four initiatives on the November ballot, a dozen more could qualify, assuming the promoters’ money doesn’t run out and petition circulators, the road warriors of direct democracy, do their part.

One reason for the glut is that the threshold for valid signatures, which is based on turnout from the last general election, is low because so few people were inspired to vote in the 2014 gubernatorial race. There’s also pent-up demand, and because of the improved economy, more rich people have more money.

The four initiatives on the November ballot include one to require porn actors to wear condoms (we’re not making that up), sponsored by a wealthy Los Angeles man, and a second, sponsored by the same wealthy man, to restrict drug prices.

A third pushed by a wealthy Stockton-area farmer seeks to restrict public works projects. He doesn’t like Brown’s proposed project to move water from the Delta to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. A fourth pushed by wealthy developers would authorize $9 billion in school construction bonds. The kids would win, too, no doubt.

The common theme is wealth, and that’s where the rub comes in. One initiative truly worthy of Johnson’s blessing has stalled. The Voters Right to Know Act sought to improve the secretary of state website that tracks lobbying and campaign spending. Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, has stepped in with a bill to improve the site. It may or may not pass.

Other provisions of the Voters Right to Know Act seem destined to die, including increased disclosure of donors on campaign ads, added restrictions on former legislators’ ability to lobby, and a requirement that consultants who represent vendors seeking state contracts register as lobbyists.

The promoter, James Heerwagen, who made his money in the Silicon Valley software, spent $620,000. But as the number of initiatives increased, what started as a $3 million to $4 million campaign doubled, Mike Madrid, a consultant advising Heerwagen, told an editorial board member. Heerwagen is wealthy but is not made of money, and his idea, good though it is, didn’t excite monied interests for obvious reasons.

“There is no constituency for getting money out of politics,” Madrid said.

There is, however, interest in providing capital for initiatives that will line promoters’ pockets. Entrepreneurs who expect to make a killing from legalized weed are funding the marijuana legalization initiative, for example.

Physicians, hospitals and public employee unions are funding the tobacco tax initiative, knowing that the proceeds will help pay their salaries. Public employees want to extend the “temporary” income tax on rich Californians to ensure there is no deficit in the state budget.

There is not much mention of reforms in any of the remaining initiatives in 2016. But that’s to be expected. Reform is such a 1911 concept.