Legislature: Fate of ballot initiative hangs in balance with Thursday deadline

Published 10:00 am Thursday, March 23, 2023

A measure to restore voters’ right to place issues directly on a ballot faces a Thursday deadline for the Senate to agree with a House version, send it to conference for more haggling, or let it die without a vote.

A similar measure died without a final vote last year, over the same main impasse the House and Senate have now — how many signatures someone should have to gather to bypass the Legislature and put an issue directly to a statewide vote.

Both Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who oversees the Senate, and the committee chairman he has in charge of the bill were noncommittal on Wednesday about the measure’s fate. Neither has seemed very enthusiastic about restoring a right the state Supreme Court took from voters with a ruling two years ago that invalidated Mississippi’s ballot initiative process and a medical marijuana program voters had approved with it.

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“We’re making good progress,” Hosemann told media when asked about it. When pressed for more information, he quipped, “G-o-o-d-p-r-o … ” spelling out his statement and refused to say more.

When asked if he would bring the bill before the full Senate by Thursday’s deadline, Accountability Efficiency and Transparency Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, said he hasn’t decided. Despite handling the presentation of the Senate version to his colleagues for a vote weeks ago, Polk voted against it and has described the ballot initiative process as “dangerous.”

“I honestly don’t know,” Polk said Wednesday. “… I’ve got a lot of thinking to do and reading, and talking with people. I am not doing this in a vacuum. I am talking with my colleagues about it.”

The Senate position on the initiative would require the signatures of at least 240,000 registered voters to place an issue on a statewide ballot. The House version would require about 106,000, nearer the previous threshold required for the last 30 years. Polk indicated Wednesday he does not want to see the Senate’s signature requirement reduced, although he said he agrees with some House restrictions, such as not allowing voters to vote on abortion rights.

Both the House and Senate versions to-date would greatly restrict Mississippi voters’ rights to ballot initiative.

Under both proposals, the Legislature by a simple majority vote could change or repeal an initiative approved by the electorate. Unlike the previous process voters had for decades, voters could only pass or change state laws, not the state constitution.

These further restrictions have brought debate among lawmakers. In the House, most Democrats voted “present” on that chamber’s version. They said the support restoring the right, but the versions being pressed by GOP leaders are too restrictive.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, has criticized efforts to make the initiative process harder to use.

“I filed bills last year and this year to restore people’s rights, which I believe should be based as closely as possible on the procedure citizens enjoyed for 30 years,” Blount said Wednesday.

Those wanting the process to be harder — or opposed to ballot initiative — such as Polk warn that it can be co-opted by well-funded special interest groups. They could bypass the state’s representative democracy form of government and pass special interest measures disguised as grassroots.

But those opposed to a more restrictive process say restrictions such as a high signature threshold would ensure only well-funded, organized special interests would be able to use it successfully.

Many Mississippians were angry when the state’s high court stripped voters of this right in 2021. This was in a ruling on a medical marijuana initiative voters had overwhelmingly passed, taking matters in hand after lawmakers had dallied for years on the issue. Legislative leaders were quick at the time with vows they would restore this right to voters, fix the legal glitches that prompted the Supreme Court to rule it invalid.

A recent Mississippi Today/Siena College poll shows Mississippi voters across the spectrum want their right to put issues directly on a statewide ballot restored.

The poll showed 72% favor reinstating ballot initiative, with 12% opposed and 16% either don’t know or have no opinion. Restoring the right garnered a large majority among Democrats, Republicans, independents and across all demographic, geographic and income lines. The poll also showed that of those who support restoration of the right, 65% said they wanted the lower threshold of signatures, compared to 26% who support the higher proposal of 240,000 signatures.


By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today