SACRAMENTO -- B.C. Keith is convinced that the Legislature's gender balance is out of whack. So the Sacramento retiree late last year submitted an initiative to require that one woman and one man be elected from each state Senate and Assembly district.
She paid the requisite $200 and submitted a handwritten, two-paragraph description of the proposed measure to the attorney general's office, gently suggesting that Attorney General Kamala Harris make any corrections needed.
Asked by this newspaper how she plans to collect the 800,000-plus signatures required for a constitutional amendment, Keith, who has a background in chemistry, said: "It's not a small feat. But I think if people are concerned about things, they'll make it happen."
Keith's was just one of 102 initiatives filed with the attorney general's office in 2011 -- one of the largest batches in history. And the burgeoning number of proposed initiatives -- and the hundreds of thousands of dollars the cash-strapped state spends each year reviewing them all -- has led to a lively Capitol debate on whether it's time to do something to stop frivolous initiatives.
And, boy, are some of them wacky.
Under David John Clark's proposed initiative, you wouldn't need a good reason, or even have to prove good moral character, to carry a concealed weapon. Past criminal investigations, indictments and restraining orders? No problem, if Clark gets his way. And under the measure's proposed language, police couldn't force permit seekers to take firearms-safety training, nor could they order psychological tests.
Another measure, submitted by Oscar Alejandra Braun, would eliminate all environmental protection laws, while establishing "new inalienable rights" to produce, distribute, use and consume, among a litany of things, carbon dioxide.
One side in the debate over the surfeit of silly initiatives argues that the $200 fee for filing one hasn't increased since it was first instituted in 1943 -- and that has made the process an opportunity for attention-seekers and headline grabbers. The other side contends that having the state subsidize the cost of the initiative process ensures that California holds onto its heritage of direct democracy.
The vast majority of those who file initiatives are unable to take their issue to the ballot, thanks to the prohibitive cost of gathering signatures. Typically, it costs $2 million to $3 million to gather the needed signatures -- currently 504,760 for statutory changes and 807,615 for measures that rewrite California's constitution.
The high costs come from having paid signature-gatherers who can command up to $5 a signature. Volunteer signature-gathering efforts can defray costs, but it takes a well-oiled political machine with boots on the ground -- think labor unions -- to pull that off.
Up to 2010, only 338 of the 1,547 initiatives -- 21 percent -- that were proposed made it to the ballot. Of those, only 112 were approved by voters.
In 2009 and 2010, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed bills that would have raised the initiative filing fee to $2,000. And a similar measure died in the Legislature last year.
"While well-funded special interest groups would have no problem paying the sharply increased fee, it will make it more difficult for citizen groups to qualify an initiative," Schwarzenegger wrote in 2010.
So-called vanity submissions, however, are costing the state. Last year, the attorney general's office, which analyzes proposed initiatives and writes a title and summary for each one, spent $500,000 processing the 102 initiative proposals -- more than twice spent in the previous year. In 2010, 75 initiatives were submitted, costing the state $234,000.
And they keep coming.
The number of submitted initiatives has increased in every decade since the 1960s. In that decade, only 47 proposed initiatives were filed. By the first decade of the new millennium, 647 were turned in.
"Some groups shop for a better title and summaries and resubmit, and some, quite frankly, just want a press release, and $200 is a lot cheaper than what a press release costs," said state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, whose bill to raise the fee to $2,000 died last year. "It's costing the state $500,000 while we're laying off teachers and cutting back on preschool. There's a question of whether that's a good use of public money."
But many conservatives argue that the state should make it easier to put initiatives on the ballot -- no surprise since most of the lawmaking powers are in the hands of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
One suggestion is to allow out-of-state signature-gathering organizations to operate in California. That would it easier to put more measures on the ballot, said Amanda Roman, president and CEO of Citizens in Charge, a conservative group that specializes in ballot initiatives.
"One reason that groups are unable to get on the ballot is because there are so many restrictions," Roman said.
Numerous cases of fraud involving out-of-state signature-gathering efforts, however, have led California and many other states to be wary of allowing them.
Keith, the Sacramento retiree with the proposal requiring that one man and one woman be elected from each legislative district, acknowledged that some people may worry that her idea would double the size of the Legislature.
But that wouldn't happen, she said, if California simply passes a follow-up initiative to cut the number of districts in half.
Despite the daunting task facing her, she said, "I expect to collect all the signatures."
Replied Keith: "I will keep that a secret for the time being."
A steady increase in PROPOSED initiativeS
By the decades
2010-11: 177 (on pace for 885 for the decade)
Source: California Senate analysis