Fixing the state’s broken ballot initiative process will likely not be part of any special session to be called by Gov. Tate Reeves in the coming days.
Chairs of both the House and Senate Constitution committees said they would prefer to take up the issue of reinstating the initiative process in January when the new session begins. Reeves is expected to call a special session to allow the Legislature to address legalizing medical marijuana.
In November 2020, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. But in May 2021, the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional both the medical marijuana vote and the state’s entire initiative process.
Ballot initiatives, added to the state Constitution in the early 1990s, are voter-led efforts to put issues directly on a statewide ballot rather than wait for lawmakers or other state leaders to adopt policy themselves. The initiative process, which requires gathering tens of thousands of signatures and voter approval before a policy can be enacted, is widely viewed a cornerstone of democratic government.
After the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, voters of many political backgrounds erupted in anger. Mississippians broadly called for a special session for the Legislature to both enact a medical marijuana law and reinstate the initiative process.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, was vocal in advocating for the governor to call a special session to fix the initiative process that was ruled unconstitutional in the controversial decision by the state Supreme Court.
But while legislators have worked to reach a consensus on a medical marijuana proposal in advance of the governor calling a special session, efforts to fix the initiative in special session have lost steam.
When Gunn recently spoke of items he would like to see on a special session agenda, he listed medical marijuana and some COVID-19-related items but said nothing about adding an initiative fix.
“Originally the speaker was open to knocking that out with medical marijuana,” said House Constitution Committee Chair Fred Shanks, R-Brandon. “We were ready to go on the House side. But there has not been much talk of it lately. But we will take care of it ( the initiative process) during the regular session.”
Shanks’ counterpart in the Senate, Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, offered similar comments.
“We spent a lot of time working on the marijuana bill, but I think we need to put time into working on the ballot initiative process before we take it up,” said Johnson, the Senate Constitution Committee chairman. “There’s no benefit to doing it before session as it has to go on the ballot in November 2022.”
Any fix to the initiative process adopted by the Legislature would have to gain the approval of the voters. But there is no provision mandating that the voter approval would have to occur during a November general election. Legislators could schedule a special election for any date, though the election cost would be much lower if the vote on the initiative fix was part of an already scheduled election. Secretary of State Michael Watson has estimated that costs of a special election of between $1 million and $1.5 million.
The initiative process was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because of language saying in order to place a proposal on the ballot a specific number of signatures had to be gathered from five congressional districts. The state lost a congressional seat in 2000 and now only has four, rendering both the medical marijuana initiative that relied on the five-district language and the entire initiative process invalid, the Supreme Court ruled.
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said he would prefer not to wait until the regular session to deal with the initiative fix.
“I would prefer to see it in the special session along with some other things,” he said. “We keep hearing they are limiting it to medical marijuana. I don’t think that is a good idea, but I am not part of leadership.”
Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader, said multiple items should be considered, such as COVID-19 “hazard pay” not only for health care workers but grocery store clerks and others who “had to come to work every day” to ensure a functioning society.
Johnson also said the initiative process should be reinstated as soon as possible to allow people to gather signatures to bypass the Legislature to place issues on the ballot, such as expanding health care to provide coverage for the working poor with the federal government paying most of the costs. Various high profile groups such as the Mississippi Hospital Association had started work on a Medicaid expansion initiative when the Supreme Court invalidated the initiative process.
“We should do medical marijuana, but I don’t understand why we are not talking about other serious issues,” Johnson said.