Long lines of voters wait their turn to cast absentee ballots on the last day to do so at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson on Oct. 31, 2020. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Three days after the Mississippi Supreme Court’s landmark May ruling striking down both the initiative where voters approved medical marijuana and the entire ballot initiative process, House Speaker Philip Gunn urged Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session.

Importantly, the Republican speaker wanted the special session specifically to reenact the initiative process. He said nothing about medical marijuana in the statement.

“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said on May 17, 2021. “If the Legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people.”

Reeves, of course, did not call a special session. And it wasn’t until this past week, early in the regular session, that the Legislature passed a medical marijuana bill. It is now a governor’s signature away from being the law of the state.

Nearly one month into the session, legislators in one chamber or the other also have voted on teacher pay, critical race theory, vaccine mandates, equal pay and a host of other issues. But it has been nothing but the sound of crickets on reinstating the initiative to allow people to bypass the Legislature and gather signatures to place an issue on the ballot.

On the House side, Constitution Chair Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, says that is going to change. He said he has been working on a proposal to restore the initiative process. He intends to take up the proposal in his Constitution Committee during the coming week.

Over in the Senate, there seems to be less urgency. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, says he supports restoring the initiative process. He has referred legislation dealing with the reinstatement to both the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee and Constitution Committee.

It is not uncommon to double refer legislation, but it is more difficult to move bills through the legislative process when they start in two separate committees.

And Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Chair John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, is playing his cards close to his vest in terms of reinstating the initiative.

“I think we need to do what is best for Mississippi,” Polk said when asked about the initiative. “I am studying the bills to see if they are doing what is best for Mississippi.”

While Polk is offering few, if any, details, it seems most legislative leaders, including Gunn and Hosemann, have concluded any new voter initiative should be used to amend or create state law — not the Mississippi Constitution, as was previously the case.

The process enacted in the early 1990s allowed initiative sponsors, if successful, to place their proposals in the Mississippi Constitution. The new proposal most likely will allow Mississippians to amend general law.

Legislative leaders say they support using the initiative for general law because it is much easier to change general law than the Constitution. Change the Mississippi Constitution requires both a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and majority approval by voters on a statewide ballot. Before the Supreme Court ruling, the Constitution also could be changed via the initiative by gathering the required number of signatures to place an issue on the ballot.

The proposal Shanks is expected to take up in the Constitution Committee would allow initiative sponsors to gather signatures (12% of the total from the last governor’s election) to place an issue on the ballot to change general law. But once approved by voters, the general law could not be changed by the Legislature for two years unless in an “emergency” situation by a two-third vote of both chambers of the Legislature. Normally it takes a simple legislative majority vote to change general law.

It is important to remember that if and when the Legislature does finally vote on reinstating the initiative, to pass it will require a two-third vote of both chambers and approval by the voters, presumably this November.

Until that finally happens, there will be healthy skepticism by some about whether legislators will restore the rights of citizens to place issues directly on the ballot.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruling marked the first time in the modern political era that the judiciary in any state has struck down an entire initiative process, according to Caroline Avakian, director of strategic communications for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national pro-initiative nonprofit.

Way back in 1920s, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a previous initiative process approved by state voters. After that action, the Legislature did not give that right back to voters until the early 1990s.

Supporters of the ballot initiative are hoping it doesn’t take 70 years this time to restore the process.

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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.