California's legislators seem to believe that jacking up the fee for filing a ballot initiative from $200 to $2,000 will stifle frivolous ideas before they can be inflicted on the rest of us. But if the Legislature passes AB 1100, the only thing that will be stifled is the state's imperfect but still functioning system of direct democracy.
The bill, by Assemblymen Richard Hershel Bloom (D-Santa Monica) and Evan Low (D-Campbell), is expected to get final legislative approval this week. When it lands on his desk, Gov. Jerry Brown should consider the consequences of putting such a steep price tag on participatory democracy and veto it.
Like so many proposals from Sacramento, the fee hike bill was devised in reaction to sensational headlines — in this case, about an utterly ludicrous, offensive and patently unconstitutional ballot measure filed this year that would have criminalized homosexuality and sentenced offenders to death.
The bill's supporters insisted that a higher fee would deter authors of bad ideas like that from filing them. But that argument is built on the faulty assumption that the worst ideas are those with little financial backing. The reality is that in the century since California embraced citizen initiatives, there have been plenty of good ones advanced on a shoestring, and plenty of god-awful ones with $10 million or $30 million or $50 million behind them. Who knows whether the sponsor of the so-called Sodomite Suppression Act would have been put off by a $2,000 filing fee?
A higher fee would act as a kind of poll tax, unfairly excluding people with fewer means while not necessarily excluding the worst ideas. Although the original proposal was amended downward twice from an insanely steep $8,000 to just $2,000, it's still too high.
Even at $200, California's filing fee is higher than those in all but one of the other 25 states with an initiative process, according to the nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog, which is opposing the bill.
This is an affront to the notion of direct democracy. And it's not even necessary. History shows that the thousands of signatures required for qualifying an initiative set a sufficiently high bar to keep most of the junk off the ballot. And a Sacramento County Superior Court judge recently handed the state another tool to fight terrible proposals when he ruled that the attorney general did not have to process the obviously unconstitutional Sodomite Suppression Act.
And if a few bad ballot measures somehow manage to slip through anyhow? Well, then voters can vote them down in the next election. That's the democratic way.
4:16 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the most current information