Legislative leaders say they’re still short of necessary votes to change state flag

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Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups parade on the grounds of the state Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in support of keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag. The public display of Confederate symbols has come under increased scrutiny since June, when nine black worshippers were massacred at a church in South Carolina. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Legislative leaders believe they still do not have the necessary votes to change the state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem, after multiple closed-door meetings held Monday in efforts to develop a politically palatable and feasible way to address the issue.

As calls to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag intensify, lawmakers have discussed whether to change the flag that was adopted in 1894.

Two trial balloons floated over the weekend — having two separate official state flags and/or letting voters decide the fate of the flag — have drawn major opposition from both the public and many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The biggest hurdle leaders face is that any change to the flag or putting it on a ballot this late in the legislative session would require a two-thirds vote of the both the 122-member House and 52-member Senate to suspend its rules.

Late Monday afternoon, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann met for almost an hour in the lieutenant governor’s office where various issues, including the flag, were addressed related to trying to end the session by Friday as planned.

“I have been for changing it. I am still trying to find a path to make that happen,” Gunn said at the conclusion of his meeting with Hosemann.

Lawmakers in both chambers and in both parties on Monday backed away from the notion of adopting a second official state flag.

“I don’t think the two-flag solution is a viable option,” Gunn said on Monday.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in a statement Monday also panned the two-flag proposal as the “Separate but Equal flag option” and said: “I don’t think it’s a viable alternative.” Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann on Monday said: “We’re discussing a lot of options and getting a feel for the members of the Senate.”

Before and after Monday’s meeting with Gunn, Hosemann met with multiple Senate Democrats – most of whom have publicly opposed both a referendum to change the flag and the two-flag solution. They believe the banner should be changed by a vote of the Legislature.

“Are we going to pass a bond bill or a teacher pay raise by a referendum?” asked Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville. “We didn’t ask the people to vote on those issues.”

Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the Legislature has changed the state seal without asking for a vote of the people. She said the issue of the flag should not be any different.

The Legislative Black Caucus and the 45-member House Democratic Caucus said they oppose any plan to have two separate state flags. They also oppose putting the issue on a ballot, saying it’s the Legislature’s job to change the flag, and want a straight legislative vote on changing it.

But Reeves, who has not clearly said whether he supports changing the flag, on Monday reiterated his stance that the only way it should be changed is by popular vote. Overriding a gubernatorial veto of any legislative change also would require a two-thirds vote that appears nonexistent.

Still, as Mississippi again suffers under the glare of the national spotlight for having a symbol tied to white supremacy in the canon of its official banner, more in the state’s white, Republican leadership are supporting change.

“Our state is at a point in its history that there is no choice but to retire its current state flag,” Republican Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth, a House Judiciary chairman, said Monday. As late as last week, Bain had been “a no comment” on the combustible issue.

“The impending economic, social and cultural pressures are going to create a storm that this state cannot weather,” Bain said. “Therefore, it is imperative that our legislature begins to consider options on how we replace the flag. This is an emotional issue and the politically easy vote for me is to keep the flag. However, there comes a time when every generation must make a change for the better.”

Bain continued: “It is now time, and I am convicted that changing the flag makes Alcorn County and Mississippi better. Whenever my time in public service is complete, I want my children to look back and be proud of what I’ve done. A vote to keep the flag does not accomplish this goal.”

Late last week, the NCAA and Southeastern Conference applied pressure to lawmakers to change the flag as both groups threatened to remove postseason collegiate sporting events from being hosted in the state until the flag changed. Dozens of current and former college athletes in the state pushed the NCAA to make that decision.

On Monday, Mississippi State’s star running back Kylin Hill tweeted that he would not play football until the flag changed.

Late last week, Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said: “A flag’s sole purpose is to unite a people around a common cause. Reality has proven clear that the Mississippi flag no longer unites, but divides us unnecessarily. I will not sit by idly while our college athletes lose their hard-earned right to compete in post season play before our home state fans over a banner that no longer accomplishes its sole mission to unify our people. I will stand up for our student athletes. It is time to change the flag. It is the right thing to do.”

But, of course, not all legislators agree with Lamar and Bain.

Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown, recently said, he believes the flag “should stay like it is.”

“I had two great, great granddaddies who fought under that flag,” Morgan said.

The House Democratic Caucus on Monday issued a statement against having two flags or a referendum vote. It said House Democrats are “prepared to vote against any measure short of taking an up or down vote for change.”

“Mississippi House Democrats for years have consistently urged the Mississippi Legislature to do its job and make tough decisions in the best interest of the people of this state,” the statement said. “The decision to remove the Confederate battle emblem from our state flag is one of those decisions. It is our decision to make, and the time to make it is now.”

But Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said he believes most state senators “clearly” do not believe the flag should be changed without a referendum.

“A lot of people think there should be a vote like we had in 2001,” Fillingane said. “That seems to be what most senators believe.”