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California lawmakers vote to raise initiative fee from $200 to $2,000

California lawmakers vote to raise initiative fee from $200 to $2,000
A file photo of voters signing a petition to put an initiative on California's ballot. (Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times)

The state Senate on Monday voted to increase the fee for filing an initiative in California from $200 to $2,000 in response to a failed proposal for an anti-gay ballot measure, but opponents of the higher charge called it an attack on direct democracy.

The bill by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) originally would have raised the fee to $8,000 in response to a ballot measure called the "Sodomite Suppression Act" that was proposed by a Southern California attorney and that called for the execution of gays and lesbians.

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The state attorney general later rejected the proposed initiative as unconstitutional, but lawmakers said the incident pointed out that anyone with $200 can propose any frivolous or improper measure for the ballot.

“There are some lunatics out there and for $200 we encourage them,” Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said during a spirited floor debate on the bill Monday. Setting the fee higher would discourage such proposals, supporters said.

The fee is paid to cover the cost of the state attorney general preparing the official title and summary of the proposed initiative for use on petitions that would be circulated to qualify the measure.

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said the actual cost of the state’s top attorney to prepare the title and summary is about $8,000 and the $200 fee was set 72 years ago and needs updating.

However, Democratic Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) joined the Republicans in opposing the measure on grounds that it could discourage legitimate initiatives by average citizens.

"The notion of a direct democracy, for better or worse, has become embedded in our constitutional psyche," Hertzberg said. "What my challenge is, on a personal level, is this sends a message to the publc that we as a Legislature are telling them that we want to put barriers up against their right to participate in the system."

Having an occasional offensive initiative proposed, he said, "is the price we pay in a democracy."

Republican Sen. Joel Anderson of San Diego said the bill would hurt average residents while allowing the wealthy to continued access to the ballot. “We are going to put a chilling effect on poor people who want a voice in the process,” Anderson said.

Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) also voted against the bill, AB 1100.

"It's about deterring citizens from being able to qualify initiatives," he said of the measure, which was approved on a 23-14 vote. It had previously been approved by the Assembly but goes back there for approval of amendments.

Lara noted that if an initiative makes it to the ballot, the filing fee is refunded.

Twitter: @McGreevy99

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