California Lawmakers To Weigh Bid To Cut ‘Frivolous’ Initiatives

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When the state Senate goes back into session this month, its members will have the delicate task of revising California’s 72-year-old filing fee for initiatives so that it will discourage over-the-top measures but still allow the “citizens’ democracy” that for more than a century has been a major part of the state’s political scene.

But despite several changes to AB1100 by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, critics remain unsatisfied.

“It’s a poll tax,” said Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a liberal-leaning consumer group that has sponsored a number of ballot initiatives. “Only this is a tax on proposing laws, rather than voting.”

Consumer Watchdog is joined by the California Taxpayers Association and the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in its opposition to Low’s bill.

The bill originally called for raising the current $200 fee to $8,000, enough to almost cover the cost of having the state attorney general prepare the title and summary for an initiative.

But while the Assembly passed the bill on a near party-line 46-28 vote in May, the state Senate has been less enthusiastic. As it made its way through Senate committees, the filing fee was trimmed from $8,000 to $2,500 and then to $2,000. The plan to hike the charge in lockstep with increases in the Consumer Price Index also disappeared.

“Now it’s going to require new legislation to ever raise (the fee) again,” Low said.

Despite the compromises, Low sees his bill as an important and long-awaited change in the way California deals with what he called “frivolous” initiatives.

Raising the cost “deters that individual who wants his 15 minutes of fame,” Low said. “It prevents abuses of our system of direct democracy.”

The most recent concerns over out-of-control initiatives arose this year when an Orange County lawyer filed what he called the “Sodomite Suppression Act,” which would have called on the state to execute gays and lesbians. State Attorney General Kamala Harris went to court, where a Sacramento judge ruled the initiative unconstitutional on its face.

Argument for increase

But the $200 filing fee, unchanged since 1943, hasn’t scared off other initiative backers more interested in satire and political statements than lawmaking.

A Southern California woman, for example, paid her money and put up the “Intolerant Jackass Act,” calling for anyone proposing a ballot measure that calls for killing gays and lesbians be required to attend sensitivity training.

And $200 was a small price to pay for a San Jose man to advance his “Shellfish Suppression Act,” which would make the sale or consumption of shellfish a serious felony requiring the perpetrator “be fined $666 thousand per occurrence, and/or imprisoned up to 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days.”

Other measures ready to be circulated statewide include one to ban alimony in all divorce cases; another creating a statewide public electricity district to replace private power companies in California; and a series of initiatives that would create a commission to consider separating California from the United States, fly the state flag above the national flag and call the state’s top elected official “president of California.”

While none of those measures has much chance to collect the 365,880 signatures needed to get on the ballot (585,407 for a constitutional amendment), it still takes the attorney general’s office about 56 hours of staff time at a cost of more than $8,000 to do the background work for each initiative, frivolous or not, Low said.

“We need to maintain the integrity of the system by creating a reasonable threshold,” he added.

But even $2,000 is too high, said Balber of Consumer Watchdog, noting that only six of the 26 states that allow citizen initiatives have filing fees and that the highest is $500, in Mississippi and Wyoming.

“Sometimes the idea is to get a title and summary and use that to raise money to qualify the initiative,” she said. “This raises the hurdle for citizen initiatives, and we think that’s a problem.”

John Cox of San Diego is behind the “Neighborhood Legislature Reform Act,” a current initiative that would cut the size of legislative districts to 5,000 residents for the Assembly and 10,000 for the state Senate, boosting the size of the Legislature to about 12,000 members. The larger groups, who would be paid $1,000 a year and vote on all measures, would pick 120 representatives for Assembly and state Senate working groups to do the day-to-day work in Sacramento.

The initiative may call for a dramatic shift in state government, but it’s anything but frivolous, he said.

“We’ve been working on this for five years, done extensive research and made probably 500 speeches to groups across the state,” Cox said. “But we’ve pulled the initiative in the past so we can find the best time to get our message out and collect the signatures needed.”

Partisan Legislature

A $2,000 filing fee might not allow his group to pick that best spot, Cox added.

If Low can keep his bill as a Democrats-versus-Republican issue, it will probably continue to roll through a highly partisan Legislature, where the minority GOP has little say in what measures pass or fail, leaving it up to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to make a final decision.


John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @jfwildermuth


Filing fees

Only six of the 26 states that allow citizen initiatives have a filing fee. California’s proposed $2,000 would be the highest by far.

Current Fees:

Alaska: $100

California: $200

Mississippi: $500

Ohio: $25

Washington: $5

Wyoming: $500


Source: various states


Initiative growth

The number of initiatives submitted to the California attorney general for title and summary has been growing steadily.

1960-69: 47

1970-79: 180

1980-89: 282

1990-99: 391

2000-09: 647

2010-April 15, 2015: 240.

From 2009 to 2013, 315 proposed initiative measures were submitted. Of those, 27 qualified for the ballot.


Source: California attorney general’s office

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