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Senate backs new rules for paid signature-gathering

May 9, 2011 |  2:55 pm

State lawmakers acted Monday to restrict paid signature-gathering for initiatives in California amid allegations that the practice allows well-financed special interests to buy customized laws.

Those who circulate petitions for money would be required to wear a badge identifying whether they are a paid signature-gatherer or a volunteer and indicating whether they are registered to vote and, if so, in which county, under one measure approved by the state Senate.

“California’s initiative process is broken,” said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), who said his SB 448 will help voters understand how signatures are being gathered for an initiative, referendum or recall.

Senators also passed a bill making it illegal to pay signature-gatherers an amount for each signature they turn in, which would force initiative proponents to pay a flat fee or hourly rate to those circulating petitions.

Senator Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) said the ban on paying a bounty for signatures is part of a broader effort needed to make sure the system is not abused by those who can afford to pay to qualify initiatives.

"It’s an opportunity for monied interests to game the system," Wright said of the status quo.

Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) said she introduced SB 168 to prevent fraud that might be encouraged if signature-gatherers have a financial incentive to turn in more signatures.

The secretary of state's Election Fraud Investigation Unit handled 240 cases of alleged fraud in the last 16 years that resulted in 33 convictions.

Republican senators opposed SB 168, with minority leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga saying it might violate the constitutional right to free expression.

Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) said the legislation benefits unions with access to large numbers of signature-gatherers and "disenfranchises'' groups that must rely on paid signature-gathering to get their issue on the ballot.

Both measures next go to the Assembly for consideration.

-- Patrick McGreevy