Lower bar to get on 2016 ballot predicted to spur ‘loopy’ initiatives

By Anne C. Mulkern | 03/31/2015 01:06 PM EDT

San Diego resident Louis Marinelli wants California to take back power from the federal government, making the state more of a quasi-nation.

San Diego resident Louis Marinelli wants California to take back power from the federal government, making the state more of a quasi-nation.

The Golden State has an economy and population topping those of many countries, said Marinelli, 29, a political activist who has worked for social change. California also is a leader in environmental protection, he said, better suited than federal agencies to manage the swaths of state land, water and other resources under U.S. control.

With that in mind, last year, he decided to pursue a California ballot measure to create a panel that would study how to make California "an autonomous region" of the United States, somewhat similar to Hong Kong in China or Scotland in the United Kingdom.


Then he and his supporters put their campaign on hold, waiting for an opportunity provided by a side effect of the 2014 general election.

California allows residents to put measures on the ballot if they can gather enough voter signatures on petitions. Propositions require support equaling 5 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial race.

Turnout in last year’s election sank to a record-low 42.2 percent. That cut the number of voter signatures needed to land an initiative on the next general election ballot to 365,880, down from 504,760 needed for 2014’s ballot.

"That’s why we waited for this year to start turning in signatures," said Marinelli, a teacher of English as a second language. The lower hurdle, he said, is "very helpful for groups like ours to try to go out and make some changes."

"We’re a grass-roots organization," he added. "We have volunteers committed to collecting signatures."

Marinelli — with his measure dubbed "New Hope for California" — is one of multiple activists who have taken the first step to get an initiatives on California’s 2016 ballot. The state has long seen niche referendums, an outgrowth of the process granting resident participation. But some political experts believe more will surface in the next year because of the lower number of voter signatures needed.

"It should make it easier to experiment through the ballot measure process," said David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University and an expert on California’s initiative process. "We should see a whole bunch of loopy things on the ballot, or at least trying to get on the ballot."

Would-be measures already in a state queue include efforts to ban nuclear plants and to eliminate investor-owned utilities. There’s a quest to prohibit out-of-state donations in California political races and to rename the state’s chief executive its "president" instead of a governor.

There’s also a bid to allow the killing of gays via "bullets to the head or by any other convenient method." It has drawn the attention of Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), a U.S. Senate candidate, who has said she is seeking to stop it from advancing.

Taking out paperwork to launch an initiative is relatively inexpensive, at $200, McCuan said. Actually obtaining the valid signatures to land on the ballot, let alone winning passage, is tougher, he said. All the interest groups that succeeded in getting propositions authorized in recent decades have paid firms to collect signatures.

The lowered signature requirement means paying for signature gathering likely falls to about $2 million per initiative, compared with $8 million to $10 million in recent years. It runs about $3 per signature, relatively high, McCuan said, because so many residents register as "Declined to State" for their political party.

"It’s harder to identify voters who are partisan and are reliable voters," McCuan said.

Using volunteers, crowdfunding

Marinelli with the "New Hope for California" measure said he has done the math on the effort needed to succeed with volunteers.

If he can get 400 supporters, they’ll each need to work roughly four hours a week, collecting 10 to 12 signatures an hour. That would garner the required number within six months, the state’s time frame for gathering the voter names. That includes a buffer to make up for invalid signatures. Marinelli right now has 80 fellow volunteers.

Marinelli said he knows there’s the chance he’ll be labeled a "crackpot." It’s worth it, he said, if it allows California to act more independently. He wants the state to take over control of many of the issues now handled by agencies including U.S. EPA, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He believes that the state should be able to keep more of the revenue associated with its natural resources and should manage its water during a historic drought.

"This is not an anti-America thing," Marinelli said. "We just think California is better able to do it themselves. California is an example of freedom and diversity and tolerance."

The panel to study the issue would include the lieutenant governor and the directors of the governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and the California Legislative Council. There would be several other members representing political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, environmental science, agriculture and business.

The backer of two other would-be initiatives for 2016 has some experience with using a local ballot to get change. Ben Davis helped lead a successful campaign that shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant near Sacramento in 1989.

Davis, who will only say that his age is "more than 60" years, now wants to shutter the Diablo Canyon plant in San Luis Obispo County, the sole nuclear power plant in California. (The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in north San Diego County closed in 2012 following a leak in a tube carrying radioactive water.)

What happened with the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after that country’s March 2011 earthquake and tsunami shows nuclear power is too risky in California, Davis said.

"In California today we are following the same path as Japan did before their disaster," Davis said in an email. "The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is allowing Diablo Canyon to continue to operate while studies are ongoing to determine whether it is earthquake safe.

"California cannot afford to risk the welfare of the entire state by continuing to allow its last nuclear reactor, which provides only a small percentage of energy for the state, to operate while studies are being undertaken to learn if it is safe to operate," he added.

The "California Nuclear Waste Act" would prohibit any in-state nuclear plant from running until there’s a "demonstrated technology or means for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste."

Davis’ other prospective initiative would replace three investor-owned utilities in the state — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) — with one municipal utility. That would lower electricity bills, Davis said. Ratepayers under the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, pay 25 percent less than customers of PG&E, he said.

"What single more effective stimulus could one have on our economy than cheaper energy?" said Davis, who worked on a rate advisory panel for SMUD from 1991 to 1992. He’s now retired.

Davis doesn’t have any plans to collect signatures on a volunteer basis. Instead, he’s hoping to attract a sponsor who would pay for signature gathering. He plans to seek money through a crowdfunding website.

"I just want the issues considered," Davis said, adding, "This is to some degree exploratory."

Prodding the Legislature?

Many of those who take out paperwork to start an initiative have no plans to collect signatures, said McCuan at Sonoma State University. Some activities and groups are testing public sentiment, are seeking to get attention or want to push the Legislature, he said.

"You want to threaten the Legislature," McCuan said. "You want to move some business they haven’t touched."

There are other changes in the state’s initiative process this year that came via legislation passed last year. Under S.B. 1253, carried by then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D), activists have six months to collect signatures, up from five months allowed for earlier ballots.

If proponents of a measure submit paperwork to the Secretary of State certifying that they have one-quarter of the required signatures, the Legislature will be required to hold a hearing on the issue.

Steinberg, who now is at the Greenberg Traurig law firm, didn’t respond to inquiries about his motivations behind the bill. McCuan said it might be to let the Legislature play an early role in issues that might become laws. Previously, hearings were required only after a measure was cleared for the ballot.

"It doesn’t mean the Legislature will come to an agreement about these things, but it could help avoid a huge ballot," McCuan said. "It will allow the Legislature to weigh in," though in some cases "they might not want to do that."

The prospective initiative allowing the killing of gays — the "Sodomite Suppression Act"– has attracted outrage from some lawmakers. Attorney General Harris said in a statement last week that the proposal "not only threatens public safety, it is patently unconstitutional, utterly reprehensible, and has no place in a civil society."

Harris said she was asking the court to relieve the state from its duty to prepare and issue the title and summary for the "Sodomite Suppression Act."

"If the Court does not grant this relief, my office will be forced to issue a title and summary for a proposal that seeks to legalize discrimination and vigilantism," Harris said.

The backer of the "Sodomite Suppression Act" in his paperwork said that it’s needed because sodomy "is a monstrous evil that Almighty God, giver of freedom and liberty, commands us to suppress on pain of our utter destruction even as he overthrew Sodom and Gomorrha."

The anti-gay initiative has also spurred an activist to take out paperwork to start the "Intolerant Jackass Act." That would-be measure says that anyone who brings forth a ballot measure that suggests the killing of gays and/or lesbians "shall be required to attend sensitivity training" for a year.

"In addition, the offender or ‘Intolerant Jackass’ must donate $5000 to a pro-gay or pro-lesbian organization," the paperwork filed with the AG’s office said.