Is $200 and a stamp a cheap price to pay for joke? What about when those giggles are being subsidized by California taxpayers?

John Marcotte, a 38-year-old Sacramento web designer, has a proposed 2010 ballot initiative that would ban divorce in California. He told the Associated Press that it’s a satirical piece aimed at opponents of same-sex marriage.

His proposed constitutional amendment would take marriage protection to a whole new level, Marcotte told the Sacramento Bee.

“If you want to protect traditional marriage, don’t stop gay people from getting married,” he said. “Stop straight people from getting divorced.”

That’s probably worth a morning chuckle, which is why newspapers across the country picked up the story. What’s not so funny is the likely price tag for Marcotte’s comedy act.

By law, every proposed initiative is treated exactly the same way, whether it’s Marcotte’s lighthearted “California Marriage Protection Act” or the deadly serious effort to call a new state constitutional convention.

A copy of the proposed initiative is sent to the attorney general’s office, along with a check for the $200 filing fee.

The attorney general’s office then has to check the proposed initiative to make sure it’s in the proper form and then prepare a title and summary that has to appear on the petitions carried by people collecting the needed signatures (it’s currently 694,354 for a constitutional amendment like Marcotte’s).

The legislative analyst and the state director of finance have to go over the initiative and prepare an estimate of what it will cost or save the state if passed. Then the whole thing moves to the secretary of state’s office, which monitors the petition drive and determines whether enough signatures have been collected to qualify it for the ballot.

The state doesn’t put a price tag on all this bureaucratic effort, but it’s a cinch that it’s more than that $200 filing fee. Anything above that is covered by the state, which is currently in no financial condition to pick up anyone’s tab.

The divorce ban is far from the only proposed initiative that’s less about qualifying for the ballot and more about making an official, California Attorney General-certified political statement on the cheap.

The secretary of state’s web site is littered with no-chance measures whose backers have no intention of taking the time or spending the money needed to put their proposals on the ballot.

Here’s just a few of the measures qualified for circulation right now:

There’s an initiative that would require mandatory drug and alcohol testing for legislators and another that would require them to certify that they have read and understood all legislation they’re voting on and have not accepted a bribe.

Another would require public schools to give students an opportunity to perform and listen to Christmas music during the holiday season and allow lawsuits to enforce that right.

Then there is the measure that would eliminate state income taxes and property taxes for all California residents 55 and older (estimated cost to state and local governments: $$25 billion). And another that would bar public schools, kindergarten though college, to be financed by property, sales or income taxes.

But since it’s not the business of the state to decide what is and what isn’t a viable initiative, how do you keep California taxpayers from being stuck with the bill for political pranks or personal ego trips?

Probably the easiest way is to boost that filing fee to serious money, say $1,000 or more.

Now the instant argument is that the higher cost would keep ordinary people from submitting their own citizens’ initiatives, subverting the original progressive/populist reasoning behind Gov. Hiram Johnson’s effort to put it in the state Constitution nearly a century ago.

But it’s important to remember that the only reason for the initiative process is to get a measure on the ballot so that California voters can decide on it, which is why that filing fee is refunded if a measure makes the ballot.

For better or worse, a serious effort to get something on the state ballot now costs multiple millions, so another $1,000 isn’t going to break the bank. And if initiative backers don’t have that money, they should find another soapbox.

If people want to make political statements, they should buy an ad. And they shouldn’t expect the state to pay for it.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.