June 19, 2015 — Got an idea for a new state law or constitutional amendment? In California all it takes is $200 to get your political ball rolling.
That filing fee, which goes to pay the Attorney General's Office for preparing a title and summary of your statewide ballot initiative — allowing you to move on to the important next step of gathering voter signatures — hasn't changed since 1943.
A bill co-authored by state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would increase the fee to $2,500, the highest in the nation, prompting the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog to warn that the proposed law will limit the political clout of California citizens.
Introduced in March by Bloom and co-author Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, the proposal originally sought to increase California’s initiative filing fee to $8,000. It was amended to $2,500 on Tuesday in the state Senate’s Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, where it passed on a 3-2 vote. It now goes to Committee on Appropriations for a vote.
Adjusted for inflation, “$8,000 is what it actually costs in the amount of hours put in per initiative,” said Sean MacNeal, Bloom's spokesman.
“When you think about it, this was done in 1943. It's been 70-something years, so if $200 back then was a difficult hurdle, it's practically nothing in today's dollars,” said MacNeal.
“This would discourage people from putting ballot initiatives out there just for giggles. If people are really serious, they're going to need more than $2,500 to run a successful ballot campaign anyway.”
On his website, Low said the bill is in response to a ballot initiative proposed in February by a Huntington Beach lawyer who wants to legalize the execution of homosexual and transgender people “by bullets to the head or any convenient means.”
“We live in California, the cradle of direct democracy, but we also need a threshold for reasonableness,” said Low. “Amending laws and making statewide policy is not something that should be taken lightly.”
Raising the fee is one way of making sure people are serious about the initiatives they’re proposing and not “just tossing stuff out, willy-nilly,” said MacNeal.
But Consumer Watchdog contends that $2,500 is still too high and will have a negative effect on a system designed to put more political power in the hands of average citizens.
“While the bill was prompted by an unconscionable proposal that targeted gays and lesbians, it can’t guarantee such an initiative won’t be submitted again,” Carmen Balber, the group's executive director, said in a press release this week. “It will guarantee that some legitimate citizen initiatives will be blocked.
“Ballot initiatives are the public’s last resort when common sense reforms are stymied by special interests’ stranglehold in Sacramento,” she said. “Raising the initiative filing fee to $2,500 — five times higher than any other state — creates one more obstacle to this direct democracy.”
State lawmakers should be “encouraging direct democracy, not discouraging it,” she said.
Most states charge nothing to file a ballot initiative, Balber noted, adding that her nonprofit group reviewed filing fees for 26 states that allow initiatives and found that only five states, including California, charge a filing fee.
Mississippi charges a $500 filing fee, Alaska charges $100 to file, Ohio residents pay $25, and Washington charges just $5 to file a ballot initiative in that state, according to Consumer Watchdog.
California law requires that before the circulation of an initiative or referendum petition for signatures, “the text of the proposed measure must be submitted to the Attorney general with a written request that a circulating title and summary of the chief purpose of the measure be prepared.”
Beyond requiring proposed initiatives to be presented to the Secretary of State, certified by local election officials and signed by a specified number of qualified registered voters, the law requires only that an initiative measure “not address more than one subject,” the Attorney General’s website says.
A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the initiative process has changed significantly since it began more than 40 years ago, noting that a number of private companies now provide such services as signature gathering and campaign consulting.
“Today, one could describe it as the ‘initiative industrial complex,’” said the Institute’s 2000 study.