California bills take aim at paid signature-gatherers

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, discusses the budget revision package with colleagues during an all-night Senate session.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, discusses the budget revision package with colleagues during an all-night Senate session.
Courtesy Sen. Mark DeSaulnier

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Decades ago, it seemed like a good idea — letting Californians decide on issues from taxes to the legality of same-sex marriage through ballot initiatives. Now, critics say that progressive approach to governance has morphed into an industry that caters to special interests with money to spend. Two state Senate bills are taking aim at the process.

One would require signature-gatherers to wear badges that indicate whether they’re paid or volunteers. The other would allow issue campaigns to pay them by the hour. But not per signature.

Both measures passed the state Senate this week. State Senator Mark DeSaulnier of Concord explains what his bill's goal is.

"It's just transparency," says DeSaulnier. He adds that polls show Californias love the initiative system, but "are aware that it's more complex than it needs to be and money plays too large an influence."

The initiative system was created 100 years ago. "Hiram Johnson, a progressive Republican, famous California governor, brought the initiative system to California because the railroad system had corrupted representative democracy, and the initiative system worked," says DeSaulnier.

However, DeSaulnier says that there were only a million people in California in 1911, and with 38 million today, the initiative system needs to be updated. "Money is a very large influence. It's been since 1982 that a volunteer effort qualified an initiative to ballot in California," says DeSaulnier.

California and 23 other states have initiative systems. "California has the most robust direct democracy," says DeSaulnier. "Unfortunately, it's been hijacked." DeSaulnier says that's because the size of California and the amount it costs to place television ads in large, expensive markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Republican opponents say the restrictions suggested by DeSaulnier would discourage freedom of expression and free enterprise by removing the incentive to collect signatures. "I just disagree. There's no analysis that suggests that they're right," says DeSaulnier. He says his bill tries to make money less of a determining factor in gathering signatures and passing an initiative.

"I believe that Hiram Johnson, when he started this, he wanted it to be mostly citizen, grassroots efforts, and we'd like to make it a little more like that," says DeSaulnier.

He says that people aren't talking about scrapping the initiative system altogether, but he has written bills calling for a California constitutional convention due to what he sees as problems with the structure of California's government.

DeSaulnier says he wants voters to have more time to read information about initiatives. He also says he has another bill going through the Legislature that would require the top five fundraisers for an initiative to be identified in voters pamphlets.

"Too often, we actually end up voting against our own best interest, because of the money and the sophistication of the marketing," says DeSaulnier. He says that his bill will help correct that.