San Francisco Chronicle

New legislatio­n would rein in signature-gatherers

- By Bob Egelko Reach Bob Egelko: begelko@sfchronicl­; Twitter: @BobEgelko

Legislatio­n to set standards for minimum wages and working conditions at fast-food restaurant­s in California has been put on hold by a referendum, whose circulator­s included some who claimed overturnin­g the law would actually increase minimum wages.

That was one example frustrated worker advocates and a state lawmaker offered as they announced legislatio­n Monday seeking — again — to require at least 10 percent of referendum signature-gatherers to be unpaid volunteers.

More than 620,000 signatures are required to qualify for the ballot, 5 percent of the votes cast in the most recent election for governor, and some referendum sponsors have paid signature gatherers as much as $10 per signature — an incentive, backers of the legislatio­n said, to use any and all tactics to induce passersby to add their names.

The state’s rules for ballot qualificat­ion of a voter referendum enable sponsors to “pay signature-gatherers to lie,” Assembly Member Isaac Bryan, D-Los Angeles, said at a news conference on his bill, AB421. While the referendum — which allows voters to invalidate a law passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor — along with the initiative and recall, were enacted in 2011 to promote direct democracy in California, Bryan said the process is “being subverted by concentrat­ed groups of special interests.”

He did not mention a state law, which took effect in 2020, making it a crime for a sponsor or signature-gatherer of a proposed ballot measure to knowingly misreprese­nt its contents.

In addition to mandating 10 percent volunteers, AB421 would require paid signature-gatherers to undergo training by the California secretary of state’s office, and would require the petitions they circulate to include identities of the top three financial donors to the referendum campaign and the state attorney general’s official summary of the measure.

But similar legislatio­n has been vetoed five times by Gov. Gavin Newsom and his two predecesso­rs, Govs. Arnold Schwarzene­gger and Jerry Brown. In a veto message in 2021, shortly after defeating an attempt to recall him from office, Newsom said a pay-per-signature ban “could make the qualificat­ion of many initiative­s costprohib­itive.”

And the legislatio­n would also face a challenge in court. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimousl­y that Colorado’s ban on any payment to signature-gatherers for ballot initiative­s violated the initiative sponsors’ freedom of speech. The court has not ruled on laws requiring some signature-gatherers to be volunteers.

Asked about the new legislatio­n, Jennifer Barrera, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, said, “While we agree with additional transparen­cy measures for signatureg­athering to ensure voters are well-informed, this proposal is clearly meant to limit the public’s voice in California’s system of direct democracy.”

Barrera said the latest bill “is all driven by the fact that one referendum has qualified for the 2024 ballot that (labor unions) don’t like.”

She was referring to the referendum that would overturn a law requiring California to create a council that would set the state’s first standards for minimum wages and working conditions at fast-food restaurant­s. That referendum has qualified for the November 2024 ballot, along with another business-sponsored referendum on a law that would ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, parks, or any business open to the public.

Qualificat­ion of the referendum measures means that the two laws, passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislatur­e and signed by Newsom, are on hold until voters decide whether to approve them in November 2024.

Bryan and representa­tives of labor and environmen­tal groups said the current system has no safeguards against blatant misreprese­ntations by signature-gatherers — for example, statements and posters claiming that the referendum to eliminate the council on fast-food workers would increase those workers’ wages.

“They asked me if I wanted to earn $22 an hour. I said, ‘Oh, cool,’ and I signed it,” said Evelyn Barrillas, who spent 21 years as a fast-food worker and now is a leader in a union campaign to increase minimum wages. She said she quickly realized that the claim was false, scratched out her name and told the signature gatherers they were lying.

Similarly, said Melissa Romero, a legislativ­e manager for California Environmen­tal Voters, signature-gatherers for the referendum blocking the limits on locations of new oil and gas wells told members of the public that their measure would reduce drilling.

Supporters of the state law targeted by the referendum are trying to “end toxic oil drilling next to where people live and kids go to school,” Romero said. “It’s absolutely shameful that the oil industry is trying to overturn what should be a basic protection.”

Bryan told reporters he hopes Newsom, despite his past vetoes, would sign AB421 — the governor strongly supported the restrictio­ns on oil and gas drilling, he said, and might be more willing to regulate signature-gathering after withstandi­ng the 2021 recall election.

Newsom’s office declined to comment.

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