Amid outrage over a proposed initiative that calls for the execution of gays and lesbians, the California Assembly on Tuesday approved legislation that would increase the filing fee for a ballot measure from $200 to $8,000.
The proposed increase would discourage outlandish ballot initiatives, proponents say, though others opposed the legislation as an attack on California's system of direct democracy, in which citizens can petition for law changes if their lawmakers refuse.
Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), a co-author of the bill, said the current fee paid to the attorney general to prepare the title and summary of initiatives has failed to keep pace with the actual cost, which he said averages $8,251.
"The $200 fee was first set 72 years ago," Low told his colleagues. "This reform is overdue, but more importantly it will also deter frivolous proposals from being submitted."
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) said the higher fee would make it difficult for individuals and nonprofit groups to file for an initiative. 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.
Grove said she agreed that the anti-gay measure should never have been filed. "But we still have to stand and allow people of this state to have the freedom to file an initiative without the overburden of expense to do that."
Some increase is warranted, but setting the fee at $8,000 is "wrongheaded," according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which works to improve voter participation.
"Californians are very protective of the initiative process and they will likely view an absurdly high increase in the filing fee to be an attempt by the Legislature to thwart they public' access to that process," Alexander said. She said a $1,000 fee would be reasonable.
The legislation was introduced by Low and Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) in response to an initiative proposed by a Huntington Beach attorney that would authorize the killing of gays and lesbians by "bullets to the head" -- or "any other convenient method."
To qualify what he calls the Sodomite Suppression Act for the ballot, attorney Matthew McLaughlin would have to collect 365,000 signatures in 180 days. But to get the process started, McLaughlin only had to pay a $200 fee to have the state attorney general's office prepare a summary and title of an initiative so it can be submitted in petitions.
Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is currently seeking a court order to allow her to reject McLaughlin's initiative.
The measure was approved by a vote of 46-24. Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside) said the measure would put a chill on the democratic process.
"We want people to vote and we want people to be involved in the process, but this would actually take a lot of people out of the process," Chavez said in an interview. "It's going to restrict our democracy. Only the rich will be able to afford to do an initiative."
The same objections were raised before the Assembly also voted Tuesday to approve a bill that would allow the state attorney general to include a disclaimer in initiative petitions when a proposed measure would likely result in a violation of an individual's constitutional rights.