In addition to the left-leaning Consumer Watchdog organization, citizens’-rights groups like the California Taxpayers Association and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have mustered their members against the bill. Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, told the San Francisco Chronicle “that only six of the 26 states that allow citizen initiatives have filing fees and that the highest is $500, in Mississippi and Wyoming.”
Hoping to stave off a shift in fortunes, Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, has already tweaked Assembly Bill 1100 in an effort to calm the drama. Co-authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, the bill originally proposed a massive increase in the fee charged by the state to file an initiative. Currently just $200, Low and Bloom set out to hike the fee to $8,000 — a daunting number for some, but calculated to just about cover what it costs the state to pay the attorney general’s office for drafting each initiative’s title and summary.
Low was inspired to push for the reform by a contentious recent effort that would have created a so-called Sodomite Suppression Act. “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,’” as the Sacramento Bee recalled. “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.”
A checkered past
Proponents of Low’s reform insisted that the bill was about more than shutting down such lurid proposals. California’s ballot initiative system has seen its fair share of half-baked ideas over the years, drawing criticism from more conservative analysts concerned that the state’s view of direct democracy was too romantic and naive.
As the Chronicle noted, initiatives have now been filed that would ban alimony, create a secession commission, eliminate private power companies, fly the state flag above the national flag, “and call the state’s top elected official ‘president of California.’”
Another ongoing challenge, some critics noted, was guiding voters away from voting in favor of unaffordable but otherwise appealing measures.
In fact, Low’s efforts to curb crazy initiatives have not been the first — nor the first to do so by jacking up the price of admission. “Given the sheer number of proposals that have been submitted recently, the Legislature has actually already tried to make filing fees more expensive,” Civinomics noted. “Laws were submitted in 2009, 2010, and 2011 to raise the fee, but two of them were vetoed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other was dropped by the bill’s author.”
For now, Republicans have recently tended more toward supporting a permissive initiative process, concerned that California lacks many other effective hedges against the state’s near-one-party rule and its more liberal judges, who largely dominate the courts. So when AB1100 came to a vote in the Assembly, votes for and against split almost exactly along party lines. Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, put forth a popular argument on the right, warning “the higher fee would make it difficult for individuals and nonprofit groups to file for an initiative,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. “She said that if the increase in the cost of living since the fee was implemented was figured in, it would now be $2,700.”
Then, as the bill made its way to the Senate, reality set in. In committee, “the filing fee was trimmed from $8,000 to $2,500 and then to $2,000,” the Chronicle recounted. “The plan to hike the charge in lockstep with increases in the Consumer Price Index also disappeared.” Nevertheless, the changes weren’t enough to satisfy critics, who will likely have to count on Gov. Jerry Brown to stop the bill from becoming law.