If money talks in politics, it positively shouts when it comes to California initiative campaigns.

Take, for example, the ongoing effort to qualify a ballot measure that would require a two-thirds vote before local governments could spend the first nickel to get into the public power business.

The effort is being run by a group with the populist-friendly name of “Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote,” although the required disclaimer adds that it has “major funding from Pacific Gas & Electric, a coalition of taxpayers, environmentalists, renewable energy, business and labor.”

Actually, that wide-ranging coalition of disparate interests is pretty much invisible, since every dollar of the $3.5 million that’s flowed into the effort so far comes from PG&E.

And where has the cash gone? Well, at least $1.5 million has been used to collect the nearly 700,000 signatures needed to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot, either for the June 2010 primary or the November 2010 general election.

Direct democracy comes with a hefty price tag in California these days, which probably isn’t what Gov. Hiram Johnson and his fellow progressives were planning back in 1911, when they put the right to initiatives, referendums and recalls in the state Constitution.

Putting an initiative on the ballot is anything but the grassroots, Andy Hardyish “Hey, let’s put on a show!” effort envisioned by the progressives a century ago. It’s been decades since an all-volunteer effort produced the signatures to get a measure on the California ballot and the rather sordid truth in the “petition management” industry is that with enough money, they can qualify anything.

That doesn’t mean it will pass, of course, but first things first.

For companies, organizations and other groups with a political bone to pick, the decision to sponsor a ballot measure often becomes little more than a cost benefit analysis. Is the money/policy/power the initiative will bring worth the millions it will cost to get it on the ballot and passed?

For PG&E, the answer is easy. In recent years, the huge utility has been forced to spend millions to keep San Francisco and other cities from voting to start their own local power companies – and taking PG&E customers with them.

With Marin County looking at plans to have a joint powers authority compete with PG&E in the power business and other cities and counties moving in that direction, the utility was facing the unhappy prospect of fighting a never-ending round of expensive battles across its Northern and Central California service area in an effort to hang on to its customers.

But expensive as a statewide initiative campaign would be – and the current $3.5 million is just a down payment for that race – a victory would virtually shut down the public power movement and put paid to those pesky local elections.

So it makes sense for PG&E to start writing checks, knowing that the money can guarantee their measure a place on the ballot.

That early money appears to be cash well spent. Petitions for the two-thirds vote power initiative reportedly are already off the streets and being prepared for submission. While the supporters have until Dec. 21 to file their petitions with local county registrars, the secretary of state is warning that the real deadline is next Monday, Nov. 16, if they want to make the June ballot. Later than that and it’s a November 2010 campaign.

The June election is the likely target, since the smaller turnout for the primary typically gives a special interest initiative a better chance at the polls.

The election campaign already has started. State Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco said on his Facebook page that he plans to go to the state Democratic Party’s executive board next Saturday and ask them to oppose the initiative before it’s even officially on the ballot.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.