“For Evan Low, a Democratic member of the state Assembly, the “aha moment” about the initiative process came when he was solicited by a petition gatherer outside a Sunnyvale Safeway. Low had just left the gym and, wearing a baseball cap, looked like anything but a state legislator.

“Do you want to take away the tyranny of the politicians in Sacramento?” the circulator asked.

Low was intrigued: “Please tell me what this is for.”

“They told me, ‘This new gas tax is being raised by politicians, and your hard-earned money is going to be used to balance the budget in other areas and it’s not really going to transportation,” Low recalled, telling the signature gatherer, “That’s factually incorrect.”

The hired gun for the repeal campaign looked at Low.

“What would you know?”

He then turned away and started making his pitch to the next shopper.

Such is the state of direct democracy in California, enacted in 1911 as a way for the citizenry to offset the outsize power of monied interests — notably Southern Pacific Railroad — in the state Capitol. No initiative resulting purely from a volunteer drive has reached the ballot in three decades.

Today, the standard process is for initiative proponents to pay circulators on a per-signature basis, typically between $1 and $3 each, and sometimes as high as $10. The bottom line: A corporation, advocacy group or wealthy individual with sufficient means can get anything on the ballot.

“The process has been bastardized,” Low said. “It’s completely being abused.”

After the Safeway encounter, Low decided to do something about it. He approached legislative staff about crafting legislation to ban the per-signature schemes, and learned that similar efforts had thrice been stymied by gubernatorial vetoes. Yet still he persevered.”

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