SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Hiram Johnson championed an initiative system for California nearly a century ago, he sold it as a grassroots way to "arm the people to protect themselves."
California's 23rd governor foresaw citizen campaigns putting propositions on the ballot when the Legislature failed to address a pressing need.
But 97 years after Californians voted to allow themselves to put measures on the ballot, Johnson's experiment in direct democracy has changed dramatically.
He certainly could not have envisioned the multimillion-dollar campaigns for several measures on California's Nov. 4 ballot, some of which critics say will benefit their wealthy sponsors at the expense of California taxpayers.
Paid petition circulators, not armies of volunteers, typically gather initiative signatures these days. Corporations, wealthy individuals, labor unions, Indian tribes and other monied interests frequently spend millions to battle over the proposals.
The Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank, reported in May that there had not been a successful initiative signature-gathering drive conducted almost exclusively by volunteers in California since 1982.
This year, volunteers collected most of the signatures to put Proposition 2 on the ballot, said spokeswoman Robin Swanson. The measure, one of 12 statewide propositions on California's ballot, would set enclosure standards for farm animals.
Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who formed a commission in 2000 to consider ways to reform the initiative process, said the system has been undermined by big-money campaigns.
"The whole thinking behind the initiative was it comes from the people, not the few people that have a checkbook," he said.
To its critics, one proposition on the ballot this year could be the perfect example of the flawed initiative process.
Proposition 10 was placed on the ballot by oilman T. Boone Pickens, a Texas billionaire, whose natural gas company stands to gain financially if it's approved.
The proposal would set up a rebate program for alternative-fuel vehicles and authorize the state to borrow $5 billion to fund it — at a time when the state is struggling with multibillion dollar budget deficits.
Half the money would be used to provide rebates of up to $50,000 to consumers who buy vehicles that run on natural gas and other non-petroleum fuels. Critics say that would mostly benefit companies that have large vehicle fleets, not average consumers.
There also would be $340 million to fund rebates for buying fuel-saving vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and money for research and development of alternative energy technologies.
"This is going to do a lot to help consumers in California who want to buy cars that run on something other than gasoline," said Marty Wilson, a consultant to the Yes-on-10 campaign. He also said Proposition 10 would help clean the air and reduce the state's dependence on foreign oil.
But opponents suggest the measure is mainly about promoting natural gas-powered vehicles and enriching one firm: Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a Seal Beach company started by Pickens.
Clean Energy, which bills itself as the "largest provider of natural gas for transportation in North America," has given more than 80 percent of the $22.5 million raised so far to pass the proposal. Two other natural gas companies have contributed most of the rest.
"This is the most naked money grab that I have ever seen in terms of using the ballot, using the voters to advance a business proposition," said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California.
Proposition 10 isn't the only California ballot measure that's attracting million-dollar donations this year. Nearly half of the more than $175 million raised so far for November initiative campaigns has come from individuals, corporations or groups that gave at least $1 million.
Several studies over the years have recommended changes in the initiative system, but bills to alter it tend to die in committee or on the governor's desk.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation in 2006 that would have prohibited initiative campaigns from paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, a step the bill's supporters said would remove an incentive for circulators to mislead potential signers.
Schwarzenegger also rejected a bill in 2005 that would have required initiative petitions to disclose if they were being circulated by volunteers or paid workers and to list the five biggest contributors to the initiative campaign.
Schwarzenegger said both measures would have made it harder to qualify initiatives, something he opposes.
The Center for Governmental Studies' report earlier this year recommended 17 changes, including giving initiative proponents up to a year to gather signatures, a step it said would aid volunteer campaigns. Currently, the limit is 150 days.
It also suggested trying to impose a $100,000 limit on donations to initiative campaigns, although that could run afoul of a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a $250 donation limit adopted by the city of Berkeley.
Having a lot of money won't guarantee approval, but sometimes the public sees only one side of an initiative debate — "the side that has the money," said Robert Stern, the center's president.
"Bottom line, money talks," he said. "At some point, it really does corrupt the system."