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Many Mississippi legislators, regardless of political party, have never been enamored with the state’s ballot initiative process. After all, the initiative process is a mechanism to allow citizens to usurp one of the Legislature’s most important powers: the power to make laws.
No group, including the Mississippi Legislature, wants to have its power usurped.
When the state Supreme Court in a May ruling made invalid the initiative process for the second time in the state’s history, key legislators pledged to fix the language the high court found unconstitutional and reinstate the initiative. Speaker Philip Gunn even asked Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session so that legislators could immediately fix the offending language.
Reeves did not, and now most legislators say they prefer to wait until the 2022 regular session to fix the initiative process. It also appears it might be the regular session before the Legislature can try to legalize medical marijuana, which was approved by voters in a November 2020 citizen-sponsored initiative but also was thrown out by the Supreme Court on the same grounds the entire initiative process was ruled invalid.
A key question going into that 2022 session, though: Will two-thirds of the members of each chamber of the Legislature, as required, be willing to pass language to fix a process that usurps their power?
Much of the primary work in fixing the process will fall to the Legislature’s two Constitution Committee chairs: Sen. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, in the Senate, and Rep. Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, in the House. Both say their goal is to fix the process during the 2022 regular session beginning in January.
“We were ready to go on the House side, but there has not been much talk of it lately,” Shanks said recently. “But we will take care of it during the regular session.”
Johnson shared similar thoughts.
“I think we need to put time into working on the ballot initiative process before we take it up,” Johnson said.
But the two chairs must convince two-thirds of their legislative colleagues to agree to restore the initiative before it can be put on the ballot for votes to approve and to re-incorporate into the state Constitution.
In 1992, the Legislature reluctantly voted to reinstate an initiative process that had been struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court in the 1920s. Legislators were being pressured by various groups and people, including two young and popular statewide elected officials — Attorney General Mike Moore and Secretary of State Dick Molpus — to revive the process where citizens can bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot.
But in reviving the initiative, legislators attached strings and placed conditions on the process that they believed would make it extremely difficult — perhaps impossible — to gather the required signatures.
Thanks in part to two term limit initiatives making the ballot in the 1990s, the Legislature proposed and voters approved a change to the initiative requiring those garnering the signatures to place a proposal on the ballot to be Mississippi residents. That change made the initiative process even more difficult. As a side note, both of the term limits proposals were defeated in part because of concerted campaigns put together by legislative leaders.
After the term limits initiatives in the 1990s, no proposal garnered enough signatures to make the ballot until 2011 when three did: personhood, voter identification and property rights.
Then in 2015, with Republicans controlling both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office, the next step was taken in muddying up and making the initiative process difficult. When an initiative designed to change the Constitution to place more of an emphasis on public education made the ballot, the Republican leadership for the first time in the state’s history opted to place an alternative to the initiative on the ballot, confusing voters and most likely helping lead to the defeat of the proposal.
Again in 2020, legislators tried the strategy of adding an alternative proposal to the ballot to try to defeat the citizen-sponsored medical marijuana initiative. But this time, the alternative strategy did not work. Citizens overwhelmingly approved the medical marijuana citizen-sponsored initiative.
At this point, the Supreme Court did, just as it did in the 1920s, rule in response to a lawsuit that the initiative process was invalid. This time the court ruled the process invalid because it required signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts and the state now has four.
For the second time, thanks to the Supreme Court, legislators do not have to worry about their powers being usurped.
The question now, though, is will lawmakers agree to legislation that will restore the power to the people and give up a slice of their power, or will they choose to again not have an initiative process in Mississippi.