James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/24/2009 02:33:17 PM PST
Got $200 and a postage stamp?
Then you, too, can try your hand at being a California lawmaker.
Since 1911, Californians have been able to write and pass laws by going directly to the ballot box instead of through the state Legislature. The ballot initiative process takes months and, for the successful few, loads of money, but politicians, political observers and even unsuccessful amateur lawmakers see it as a necessity, even if many proposed laws seem harebrained.
“We wanted to have them all drug tested, just because we think these guys are lunatics,” said Gary Ellis, a Lake Arrowhead resident who authored a ballot initiative that would require state legislators to take a drug test at the beginning of their term. “We wanted to send a message.”
Wanted to, but didn’t.
To start the initiative process, Ellis and fellow proponent Dorothy Cummings just had to send $200 and the language of their proposed law to the California Attorney General’s office. But to put the initiative on a statewide ballot, Ellis would have had 150 days to gather signatures from 433,971 registered voters.
He doesn’t expect to get more than 100,000 by the Dec. 10 deadline.
“It’s been a disappointment and a failure,” Ellis said. “It just didn’t happen. It didn’t gain traction.”
Specifically, it didn’t gain traction with unions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving or other groups that could have helped gather signatures or advertise the initiative, Ellis said.
Initiatives that do qualify for the ballot – 2008’s Proposition 8, for example – typically have big money behind them.
“In a state this size, you can’t get anything through unless there’s some level of financial support,” said Brian Janiskee, a political science professor at Cal State San Bernardino. “But just because it has money behind it doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.”
Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who also represents the Victorville area, has been on the winning and losing end of well-funded ballot initiatives. In 2006, voters approved the Jessica’s Law, which he co-authored, but voters rejected his Safe Neighborhoods Act in 2008.
“The easiest part is submitting your initiative,” Runner said. “It only gets harder from there. The complexity, the cost and the timing narrow down the number of issues that are going to come before the public.”
That’s both good and bad, Runner said. While the process will likely weed out left-field initiatives – for instance, one that would ban divorce in California – Runner said some good laws will likely fail if they don’t have the money.
“You really have to have financial means,” he said. “It’s pretty impossible to do a grassroots-drive initiative.”
He said he would favor giving Ellis and other proponents more time to gather signatures so that a shoestring campaign might be possible.
Even if that further opened the door to laws that seem inane – one currently gathering signatures would require public schools to allow students to perform or listen to Christmas music during the holiday season – Runner said the process is still important.
“The public often has a different opinion than what the Legislature has,” he said. “It’s important to keep everybody honest.”
That’s all Ellis said he was trying to do. He knew the odds were against his ballot initiative – “better than winning the lottery, but not by much,” he said – but he said Californians have to make use of the system and exercise their rights.
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