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The need for initiative volunteers

Cal Focus

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By Thomas D. Elias

A recently vetoed California law that would have required at least some ballot initiative signatures to be gathered by volunteers, instead of paid workers, contained the following statement:

“The voters amended the California Constitution to reserve for themselves the power of the initiative because financially powerful interests, including railroad companies, exercised a corrupting influence over state politics.”

The initiative process actually was volunteer-driven at one time, witness the so-called Clean Environment Initiative of 1972. That measure lost but most of its have been achieved, including a moratorium on new nuclear power plants in California, taking lead out of gasoline and other provisions now taken for granted.

It was organized by the People’s Lobby group, headed by the legendary couple, Ed and Joyce Koupal, who started the modern initiative era when they opened shopping malls to petition carriers.

That came after San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies kicked volunteers out of a mall, and a lawsuit ensued, upholding their right to be there.

Soon after, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan ironically invited the Koupals to meet with him and explain the initiative process. That meeting was ironic because Koupal once led a drive to recall Reagan. But Reagan listened, and soon qualified a tax-cutting initiative for a special election ballot in 1973.

That one also lost, but its goal was realized five years later via the Proposition 13 property tax limits.

Reagan’s ballot drive was the first to use significant numbers of paid petition carriers, with corporations, labor unions and big money interests of all types realizing they also could play the initiative game.

Within a few years, tobacco companies, oil companies, electronics companies, labor unions and others had small armies of paid petition carriers pushing their causes.

At first, paid carriers got about 25 cents per signature; more recently, some have been paid upwards of $5 per valid name, and initiative petition drives now often cost millions of dollars. It’s become a political truism that anyone with the money to run a petition campaign can qualify just about anything for the ballot.

Enter the vetoed bill, which passed the Legislature as AB 857. It required at least 10 percent of petition signatures be gathered by unpaid workers.

But Gov. Brown vetoed it because labor union members working for an initiative would have been classified as volunteers. That, he felt, gave unions an unfair advantage.

Some Republicans contended the definition would give a lasting advantage to labor. But there was nothing to prevent groups on the right from sending their own members out to gather signatures, and Tea Party organizations would certainly have taken heed.

The solution is for sponsors of AB 857, including Assemblyman Paul Fong, a Concord Democrat, not to give up, but to make their definition of who is a volunteer a bit more pure.

Then this needed improvement will probably pass muster with Brown and make a start toward returning initiatives to the populist purpose for which they were always intended.