Secretary of State Michael Watson said he believes Gov. Tate Reeves should call a special session of the Legislature to address issues created by a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Initiative 65 medical marijuana program and Mississippi voters’ right to ballot initiative.

Watson joined Mississippi Today’s Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender to give his take on the ruling and what might happen moving forward. He said his office will also have numerous issues before the 2022 legislative session, dealing with election issues, business services, and the public lands his office oversees.

Stream the episode here.

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Geoff Pender: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Other Side podcast. This is Geoff Pender with Mississippi Today. I’m joined today by my fellow political reporter, Bobby Harrison. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:00:18] Hey Geoff.

Geoff Pender: [00:00:18] Hey Bobby. And our guest today is Secretary of State Michael Watson. He has been secretary of state since 2020. He formerly served as a state senator for District 51 I believe from 2008 to 2020, and pails from beautiful Pascagoula. Welcome Mr. Secretary. 

Michael Watson: [00:00:42] Thank you, Geoff and Bobby. Great to be with you both. 

Geoff Pender: [00:00:45] Well, let’s get started. There’s been a lot of stuff in the news that you you’ve had a keen interest in recently, the Supreme Court ruling and the issues with our state voter ballot initiative and the medical marijuana ballot initiative that passed, but got struck down.

So where do things stand with that right now? And what are you advocating happens now? 

Michael Watson: [00:01:08] Yeah. So I mean, a few things, you know, you’ve got the Supreme Court case of medical marijuana, and we have talked a little bit about, you know, what that looks like as far as a special session whether or not the Legislature would come in.

Obviously the governor would have to call that in. And on the other side initiative process you know, the court struck that down, but the process itself is still technically alive. And so we’ve got a few initiatives that are still out there. You know, depending on if the Legislature comes in and changes the rules or, we have some type of special election to change the constitution in the provisions, in which we saw dealt with. I was thinking about Supreme Court case. You know, that could happen prior to the year running with folks, getting their signatures. So those are still technically alive, but we’ve got a lot of conversation to be had in Jackson at the Capitol, as well as again, if the Legislature changes the initiative process by amendment to the constitution, then that would have to go to a vote.

So we’re, we’re still actively following each of these issues. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:02:10] And Mr. Secretary, just to be clear to background for people which, you know, better than anybody. The initiative process was struck down by the Supreme Court and a lawsuit over to America medical marijuana that was passed by voters back in November, that ballot initiative was. And what was challenged in the courtroom was the fact that language in the constitution about an initiative process says that the signatures to place an issue on the ballot have to be gathered equally from five congressional districts. That was put into the constitution in 1992, I believe. And in 2000, we lost a congressional district based on the census. So now we just have four.

So it’s mathematically impossible to do what the constitution calls to be done. And in the past it’s been ruled that just collect those signatures from the four districts. That was just kind of like a common sense type thing to do. But the court said no, that the language had to be rewritten. Am I correct in that?

And  just tell me your impressions of the court ruling. And I mean, you kind of argued that it should just go the way it’s been going for the past 10 years. So just using the four districts togetherto get signatures. So I don’t know if there’s a question in there, but comment on it. 

Michael Watson: [00:03:21] Sure. Bobby, a few things there to unpack kind of as an attorney. What the ruling said was basically, look, you’ve got to have signatures from the old five.

The constitution says you know, one fifth of the 20%, which makes it unworkable. However, It didn’t strike the process itself. They basically said, look, you know, and this is me paraphrasing. The process is still there, but you’re never going to be able to get that  to a ballot because there’s a question about where the signatures need to come from.

And until that is dealt with, you know, in theory, again, it’s unworkable. However, the other portions of the constitution are still there dealing with the initiative process. So we’ve got some, you know, initiatives, we’ve got heck five or six that are still alive technically. And again, once you get through the process of having it published and getting the title in summary, you publish that and then you’ve got a year once you start collecting signatures. So again, in theory, If the Legislature acted and the constitutional provision was changed and then adopted by the people of Mississippi within a year timeframe, however, that may happen, you still could technically get some of these amendments that are still alive to the ballot.

So we’re going to watch that closely. You know, clearly, if the Legislature doesn’t act any time soon that year time is going to lapse and then absent some type of language in an amendment in statute,  in the constitution provision that would allow them to rescue those initiatives.

They would die if that year time lapsed. So it’s confusing a little bit, and it’s tough to kind of get down into the weeds. But again, the process is still there. It’s just unworkable with the signature requirement as is .Now, you’re right. We were right dead middle of the case. We did argue there’s a statute out there that, that you know, basically says, hey, you’re the five congressional districts.

It’s still a statute it’s still in law. So our argument was for the purposes of, you know, gathering signatures from congressional districts, we’re going to refer to this statute. As you know, there are other board commissions out there that still refer to the five congressional districts. Again, the court struck down the initiative process with the signatures coming from the old five congressional districts because there now are four congressional districts. So there’s some confusion there too. And I think you’re going to see that walked through by the Legislature once they address that, and we’ll see what they do with it. 

Geoff Pender: [00:05:47] You touched on something just then that I’ve seen some other people questioning. These five districts are still used for some other purposes Now perhaps their accompanying laws are such that this ruling wouldn’t automatically hamper that. Or can you explain that? How can those five districts still be used for things such as board appointments, judicial, the community college board?  How does that work? How can they still be used?

Michael Watson: [00:06:16] That’s a great question. And the one that we’re still asking too.  I got a call the other day from some folks over at wildlife. Some of their commissioners, same kind of situation. So I think again, when the Legislature comes in to address that, whether that’s in a special session or, you know, first of next year when they address this provision, I think they’re going to have to look at that across the board.

Well, it doesn’t just impact signature gathering for initiative process. It also applies to many of these boards and commissions. So do we need to reword those? Do we need to restructure those? What does that look like? So it’s a great question, Geoff, and one that I can’t answer for you. 

Geoff Pender: [00:06:52] The only explanations I’ve heard on that is it some of those other accompanying laws dealing with board, whatever, that their wording is a little different.

They say districts as they existed in such and such time and date. If that were something that would prevent problems with those, then one might ask the question: well, why couldn’t you come back and just change the accompanying statute? Maybe even, I don’t know, without going through amending the constitution or an election or whatever. But would that be possible?

Michael Watson: [00:07:31] I think so, via statute. Now the initiative process, you know, clearly that was in 2733 in the constitution. So you’re going to have to amend the constitution for that purpose. But as far as these other boards and commissions, and you’re right, some of them did say, you know, as drawn in so-and-so date.

And I think that was part of the argument from the other side against our position at the hearing. You know, look, it wasn’t spoken to specifically.  That’s a moving target in a sense that if congressional districts change, then so does signature gathering requirements. And obviously the court found that to be a compelling argument, and  that’s what they ruled.  

Bobby Harrison: [00:08:10] Interestingly, the Court of Appeals judges, the court right below the Supreme Court, is they’re elected from those old five congressional districts, but they did change the law in that instance. They call them Court of Appeals districts instead of congressional districts.

But I mean, I’ve read the law concerning the wildlife board and the community college board and they don’t change. I mean, it just says the five congressional districts. It doesn’t make any reference to how they existed at any such and such time. So there’s a lot of inconsistency there it seems like.

Michael Watson: [00:08:40] Yeah, definitely. Being a former legislator, you know, sometimes we will. amend a code section. And our legal services, they do an outstanding job. And many times you’ve got to change provisions in other statutes, just because you tinkered with one here, it impacts something over there. And that’s what we’re seeing.

There are some boards of commissions that were changed. There are some that weren’t or some maybe they weren’t intended to be changed, but it’s caused some confusion now. So we’re going to have to go in, or  excuse me, the Legislature’s going to have to go in and correct many of those, in my opinion. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:09:12] Mr. Secretary, you referenced that as a former legislator, and you’re also a former Constitution Committee chair in the Senate. And I’m asking a question I really don’t know the answer to, but I mean, one thing that came up into court arguments was the fact that the Legislature had a chance to change this and they did not change it.

I mean, I think part of it was just the legislators didn’t think it was a big deal, but  didn’t you introduce a bill, not a bill but a constitutional resolution, to change it one time? I may be wrong about that, but I think you did. 

Michael Watson: [00:09:40] No, you’re you’re correct, 2015. And you know,  I think the Legislature had been kind of rested on the idea that we’d had a couple of other provisions, initiatives that have gone through and didn’t see an issue with it.

So maybe there was no immediacy to address it. You know, again you know, I saw the language. I saw that there could be an issue, and that’s why we had that drafted and then tried to get that done. You’ll recall, you know I was chairman of constitution, and the former lieutenant governor maybe he didn’t think that was such a big deal.

So we’ll see. It has to be dealt with now. And we tried to do it back then, but it is what it is.

Geoff Pender: [00:10:19] Looking forward a little bit, there’s already been some talk. And I know this has been a debate for many, many, many, many years, but in your mind, as they address the ballot initiative process, are there changes they should make, improvements?

There’s been talk of a allowing voters to change or create statute, but not amend the constitution. Perfect world, having a magic wand, what would you like to to see done as they address this? 

Michael Watson: [00:10:50] Yeah,  we’ve been proactive on that, Geoff, and I think it’s a two-step process. Number one, obviously people need to have a way to have their voices heard if the Legislature is not reacting or, you know, performing their duties in a sense.

And we’ve seen this provision mechanism happen numerous times, obviously voter ID, eminent domain and then now Initiative 65. So it’s been a successful provision and used by Mississippians. And I think they deserve and need that.  My hope is again, a two-step process. Number one, let’s go ahead and fix what we have to reflect the four congressional districts.

Let’s get that in  and get that voted on. And number two, I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to kind of flesh this out in the sense of we’ve seen other states where they do allow their constituents, their citizens to amend statute. They do allow for their citizens, you know, to amend the constitution.

So do we want both? And if you go back and look originally, I think it was in 1916, we amended our constitution to add both, where you could amend statute and amend the constitution. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:11:56] Oh, both were in the original constitution? I did not know that. 

Michael Watson: [00:12:01] 1916 we added that to the constitution. Now it was struck down. I believe it was the Powers case in 1922 if I’m not mistaken. You can go back and kind of dig through that, which by the way, the Powers case is one of the reasons that we decided not to ask for a rehearing. But we could talk another hour about that. But again, that was in our constitution, and they amended it back in 1916. So that’s been thought through before. You know, are there different hurdles for a statutory as opposed to a constitution?

Do you want those? Is it just the statute? Is just a constitutional amendment? So that’s something that we’re digging through. We’re looking at all of the other 50 states trying to get an idea of what’s worked well in these other states. And is this something that we need to add here in Mississippi?

So again, I think it’s a two-step deal. Let’s fix what we have. And then let’s take some time to make sure we get it right. And then ultimately, you know, do we want to change it to a statutory and that constitutional initiative process? So we’re going to do our homework and present a plan to the Legislature.

And obviously they’re the ones that have to make that change moving forward. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:13:04] Well, staying on the issue of the Legislature. There’s a couple of different issues here. Would you prefer a special session to go ahead and get this done? And if there was a special session would you just want to take up the medical marijuana issue and wait on the the overall ballot initiative issue or what’s your position?

Michael Watson: [00:13:18] All the above. You know, I believe that we should go into a special session for numerous reasons.  Number one: so many folks came out of medical marijuana. It clearly passed with a strong majority of Mississippians voting.  Matter of fact just this past week, a very close family friend of mine whose mother is now battling stage four cancer couldn’t eat, was in pain and they were able to get her some. I’m not sure if it was gummies or brownies. I’m not too familiar with that industry, but she was able to ingest that and then, you know, was able to eat and get her appetite back. So Mississippians voted for that, and I think you can help so many people.

So I would like to see the Legislature come in and handle that as quickly as possible while they’re there. Let’s fix this provision so we can go up for a vote. And then, you know, as we’ve mentioned before, the other initiatives that had passed there’s questions out there, whether or not they can be challenged. I think that they would both stand a challenge, but why waste that time?

Why put that risk out there when you could go ahead and address those? There’s statute and do it in a special session. So you’ve got four things that you could fix pretty quickly in my mind. And you get some, you get some relief, the Mississippians who clearly voted strongly for it. You get the process back before the people for the constitutional provision.

Now, the question is, would you call a special election, which they have done before? You may recall back in 2001. Or do you wait to 2022? And if they waited to 2022,then obviously that would take the immediacy out of fixing that provision. So those are decisions that the governor is going to have to make whether or not he calls the special session, and if he does what he includes. But as far as I’m concerned, I would say, yes, let’s do it, the will of the people into statute and get some relief to people who desperately need it. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:15:08] My math showed, and it’s scary to say my math.  People who know me know my math is usually not too good, but my math showed that a special election would cost somewhere around $1.5 million roughly. Would you concur in that or would you say my math’s wrong?

Michael Watson: [00:15:28] You got that one about right Bobby. We’ve shot at between $1 to $1.5. And so it’s better to err on the side of the conservative nature there and say $1.5 would get it done. 

Bobby Harrison: [00:15:38] Changing the topic real quick.  I know you’re busy, so we won’t keep you much longer.  One of the ballot initiatives deals with early voting. I think you’ve gone on record in the past that you might be willing to look at some type of expanded early voting in Mississippi, but you’re dead set against expanded mail-in voting. Would you like to see something done  on that issue during the  upcoming 2022 session?

Michael Watson: [00:16:00] Yeah, so I’m a thousand percent against universal vote by mail. I think that’s a terrible idea. And one that we could see  much more fraud involved with that. So  I’m totally against that. On the other piece, I believe the last conversation that I had dealing with that was, look, there’s an initiative out there.

And by the way, it’s still out there, Initiative 78, which is one of the ones that I mentioned. You know,if the Legislature acted, if there was a special election in theory, they still could get their signatures within the year process and put that on the ballot. So I gotta be careful with that one.

Obviously we oversee that initiative process. But with that being on the plate there, my conversation, the last one we had anyway, was basically, look, if this is coming before the people, perhaps the Legislature should be proactive and look at what other states have done, Florida, and several others who have done it and done it well and successfully without the fraud. How have they done it, and is that something that we should look at in Mississippi? I think we owe it to Mississippians to have an open mind, to at least listen, to do our homework and form our opinions based on that homework that we have done. So other states have done it andhave gotten it right. I would say this, Bobby, some of the, not some of, most of the studies that I’ve seen, that basically said there is no increase in turnout with early voting.

It’s basically just a convenience issue. So I’m still old school in the sense that I love Election Day. And I think that is, I don’t think, I know that it’s the safest way to vote. So that’s my preference. But if there is a conversation, if there is an appetite, it is something that Mississippians deserve us to sit down and listen and do the homework and make sure we’re making wise decisions for our state.

Bobby Harrison: [00:17:41] Some people have said that the  Legislature should address medical marijuana, which I think what you’re saying on early voting prior to the initiative, so that what some people saw problems with in the medical marijuana initiative could have been ironed out through the legislative process, but they chose not to take it up.

Michael Watson: [00:17:58] Yeah, absolutely. Bobby, you see this in the number. We’ve got five or six initiatives that were before us. So I think that’s a national trend that you’re going to see more folks going in that direction. So if you’re seeing that, you know, public sentiment grow in certain areas and yeah, I think it is the Legislature’s job to listen and respond.

That’s why we’re elected or elected to do the will of the people. And, that was one of the reasons we had that conversation, but you’re right. Same thing with medical marijuana. I think, you know, everybody kind of saw that thing from the ground up, just that train left the station. Perhaps the Legislature should have done something prior to, and I think that’s where we find ourselves now. Let’s get it right.

People want it Mississippi so we needed to be responsive to that. And again, that’s one of the reasons I said, let’s go ahead and have a special session and get it done. 

Geoff Pender: [00:18:43] Mr. Secretary, your office deals with many, many different things. A lot of people may not realize some of the business responsibilities.  Just real quickly, looking at the coming legislative session and all, what are some other issues that are top of mind or that you might be pushing for with the Legislature? 

Michael Watson: [00:19:04] Yeah, Geoff, that’s a great question. And really quickly, just so people know, elections obviously is the face of the office, but then we have business services. So  your LLCs, your corporations, your nonprofits, your cemeteries, your sports agents.

And I could keep going down that list, but those are filed with our office. We have the APA, the Administrative Procedures Act so rules and regs are under our office. We really impact your lives just about every facet, whether you know it or not every day. And then we have public lands. So we’ve got 16 section lands.

Then with education, we’ve got Tidelands along the coast. We’ve got forfeited properties. It’s a big office, and it has a big impact. So you’re right. We’re looking at several different things, right? One of the things that I’m really excited about, we’re working through  with DOR. And I learned this, Alabama does this.

So every year LLCs and others have to file your annual report. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s a quick, easy kind of thing to do. It’s free. It doesn’t, you know, there’s no cost to it, those that are in Mississippi. But what if you could do that on your tax return? So it just knocks out one more step that you have to do as a business.

You could just do your filing. It’d be intertwined with your tax return. A DOR would send us that information. Again, just one less step that somebody has to have as a small business, just kind of hanging over their head. Not a big deal, but again, if you can make it easier for businesses, that’s something that we want to do.

So we’re looking at that. We’ve got some issues that have arisen in the scrap metal area. So we’re doing some homework and research in that. You may see some of that coming forward. As you know, again, elections. We had two big pieces last year that we’re going to come back with this year on dealing with voter roll maintenance.

And that’s been a big topic of conversation with S1 and HR1 as well as our proof of citizenship legislation. So we’ve got a bunch of things out there be it business, be it land.  We’ve got some 16 section land questions on  the ag side. Should we extend those leases  to give farmers more time with the leases to invest in the land to get better returns?  Many questions out there. We’re looking at some conservation ideas.

So you’re going to see a very active Secretary of State’s office. Again, coming from the Legislature and understanding that process  really kind of gives me a leg up to understand how to get things done over there. So we’re going to be active and you know, we’re going  to work hard for Mississippians.

Geoff Pender: [00:21:16] Well, we appreciate you joining us today. We’ll be staying in touch as some of these things progress or don’t as the case may be whether there’s a session or not. Again, thank you for joining us.

Bobby Harrison: [00:21:29] Appreciate it, Mr. Secretary.

Michael Watson: [00:21:30] You got it, Bobby. Thank you guys.

Adam Ganucheau: [00:21:39] As we cover the biggest political stories in the state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.