2014 poised to be an epic year of pimping ballot measures

2014 is poised to be an epic year of pimping ballot measures

Greg Lucas' state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every-other week in SN&R. He also blogs at www.californiascapitol.com.

The Legislature might be flatlining and cobwebs are gathering around the White Sepulcher’s Corinthian columns, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lotta politickin’ going on in the Golden State.

A largely under-the-radar industry is shifting into second and third gear in anticipation of 2014, even-numbered election year that it is. This motley band is the ballot measuremongers who profit off pimping and pillorying initiatives they help put before voters.

They are pollsters, strategists, ad buyers, signature gatherers, lawyers, videographers, direct mailers, fundraisers, mouthpieces and coalition builders—a phalanx of folk who critics claim feast off the host body of the vox populi. If that’s true, it’s quite the sumptuous spread.

In the last 10 years alone, total spending on initiatives has been $1.8 billion—$514 million in the 2012 election cycle alone. Some of those in the initiative industry, like ad buyers, rake off 15 percent. Others, like lawyers or consultants, charge a monthly retainer with four or five zeros on the end. Some, like signature gatherers, are bounty hunters, whose loyalty is controlled by the initiative backer with the most open wallet. In the signature-gathering world, $2 trumps $1 every day of the week. And twice on Sunday.

Ballpark: The initiative enablers pocketed 10 percent of that $514 million last year. Probably more. And, with the exception of the odd-numbered, semi-off years, it tends to be steady work. The health-care industry has turned to Sacramento’s Goddard Claussen Public Affairs for several decades to fight its ballot battles—just as it’s doing in 2014.

Goddard Claussen and others in its field appear to have no worries meeting payroll in 2014.

Placing a change in state law on the ballot requires at least 504,760 valid voter signatures and more than 807,615 to shoehorn something new into the state’s already swollen constitution. To the great joy of paid signature gatherers, that means initiative proponents build in a margin of error of at least 30 percent, so it’s more like 1.1 million legit signatures to horse around with the constitution.

The signatures must be obtained in 150 days and be OK’d for the ballot at least 131 days before the next election. So, to get on next November’s ballot, all signatures must be rounded up, verified and certified before the end of August 2014. That’s why now is the time to start to commence to begin to get the process rolling.

A peek at the California Secretary of State’s website, chronicler of what’s up in the wacky world of ballot measures, shows two measures have already made it to the 2014 ballot—one of which the health-care industry is paying to torpedo. Signatures are being sought for 15 other measures and 24 are waiting for the attorney general to write the official description of what mischief those measures will make if approved.


Two initiatives have failed to qualify, either for not enough signatures or not meeting a deadline. More will follow. Like boogers, a lot of initiatives are flicked at the wall but few stick.

Joining the two already-qualified ballot measures will likely be one by trial lawyers to make doctors pay more for the “pain and suffering” of a patient they’ve done wrong to. Back in 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown the First (the one with hair) placed a limit of $250,000 on “pain and suffering” payments by doctors—what lawyers call punitive damages. Now, the lawyers want to “adjust the cap for inflation.” The initiative doesn’t say inflation has increased 334 percent since 1975, more than quadrupling the damages limit to $1.1 million. Lawyers are still grabbing signatures and the doctors have written a $5 million check to slap them down on next year’s ballot. Lawyers will respond in kind.

That’s just one big budget ballot measure. There’ll be more—further proof initiatives remain a solid, recession-proof segment of California’s economy. And to think the process was created 100 years ago to help voters break the stranglehold of monied interests on government operations. How quaint.