Facing growing pressure to change state flag, lawmakers consider adopting second official flag or letting voters decide

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, left, and House Speaker Philip Gunn speak to media concerning the legislative session and the coronavirus Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

As pressure mounts to change the state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem, legislative leaders spent the day Friday discussing several options, including adopting a second official state flag or letting voters decide the current flag’s fate.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, as well as top ranking lawmakers on both sides of the building, met to discuss the issue on Thursday, according to several people with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Multiple sources on Friday told Mississippi Today that one option lawmakers are considering is some type of referendum to allow a vote of the people on the issue. The exact details of that potential referendum, including when the vote would occur and what exactly would be placed on the ballot, remain undecided.

A second option being discussed is a possible two-flag solution. In the past, some legislators have discussed retaining the current flag but also officially adopting another banner. Under that approach, governmental entities could then choose to decide which banner to display.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who would have to sign any legislation that passed in coming days, did not discount the possibility he would support the two flag option in a press conference on Thursday.

Gunn, the most prominent Mississippi Republican official to definitively call for changing the flag, didn’t talk on Friday about specific options being discussed, but he said his opinion on the issue hasn’t changed.

“The options we’ve got are for the Legislature to take the leadership role, or put it to a referendum,” Gunn said. “… I’ve always maintained that I feel the Legislature should take the leadership role.”

But Gunn said the realpolitik is that it does not look like there are enough votes in the Legislature to act on its own, at least in this session, which is set to end on Friday. He said there is still some discussion, including about pushing the issue to a referendum.

“We are continuing to have those conversations and monitor votes,” Gunn said. “… If all we can get is a referendum, then so be it.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg and one of the few Republican legislators to take a public stance for changing the flag, said that discussions at the Capitol on the issue are ongoing but change “hour by hour.”

A recent survey by Mississippi Today indicates that many Republicans, who hold a supermajority in both the House and Senate, do not favor the Legislature changing the flag on their own.

“The Mississippi Legislature has no business stripping the people of our state from having a voice in this matter,” said Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls.

Many lawmakers, however, oppose a referendum on the issue, saying it is the constitutional duty of the Legislature to act. The issue was placed before Mississippi voters in 2001, and 64 percent of those voters opted to keep the current flag. There’s a feeling among many lawmakers that if a vote of the people were to go similarly, conversations about changing the flag would be buried for years to come.

But in recent days, both the Southeastern Conference, which includes the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State as members, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have said they will keep postseason athletic events from being hosted in the state until lawmakers change the flag.

The NCAA ruling, which would include college baseball and women’s basketball regionals, would impact the state’s public and private universities and colleges.

Andy Taggart, longtime Mississippi Republican politico and vocal proponent of changing the flag, said he believes voters would approve a proposal to change the flag if the Legislature placed it on the ballot. Still, he said he prefers the Legislature tackle the controversial issue themselves. As far as having two flags, he said: “I think a two-flag option is a very poor choice.”

“When I was in high school in the mid-1970s, we had a black Mr. Moss Point High School and a white Mr. Moss Point High School,” Taggart said. “… To say we ought to have two state flags is just wrong. There was some talk of adopting an additional state flag with the view that over time the current one would sort of atrophy away. I just don’t think that is a defensible position at all.”

Taggart continued: “We ought to be willing to say to the people of our state who are hurt by or offended by the Confederate emblem that it is no longer representative of our state in any way.”