A festive reminder to vote placed at St. John M.B. Church for those traveling the Northside Drive/Medgar Evers Blvd. corridor in Jackson on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Just five days before a key deadline, a Senate committee chairman would not say definitively that he will keep alive legislation to revive the state’s ballot initiative process.

“I do not have a definitive answer to that at this time,” Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee Chair John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, said on Thursday.

March 1 is the deadline for bills approved by one chamber to pass out of committee in the other chamber. The House passed legislation earlier this year to restore the right for citizens to bypass the legislative process and place issues on the ballot.

READ MORE: House votes to restore a version of Mississippi ballot initiative process

If Polk does not pass House Concurrent Resolution 39 out of his committee by Tuesday, it will die unless revived by suspending the rules — a rare and difficult feat at the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, referred the bill to Polk’s committee instead of Constitution Committee, where it normally would be sent. Constitution is chaired by Sen. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg.

“We are still studying it. We have to do it right,” Polk said when asked on Feb. 24 about the legislation. “After we do all the studying, we will see where we are and decide what to do then.”

The issue is before the Legislature this session because the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the initiative process last May when it ruled that the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November 2020 was invalid. The court ruled the process invalid because language in the Constitution mandated the required number of signatures be gathered equally from five congressional districts. The state has only four congressional districts, losing one as a result of the 2000 Census.

The proposal that passed the House would require a pro rata share of signatures be gathered from whatever number of congressional districts the state has.

The language that passed the House would allow voters to place issues on the ballot to change or amend general law. The initiative adopted in the early 1990s and that was struck down by the Supreme Court allowed voters to amend the state Constitution.

After the Supreme Court struck down the initiative, both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Hosemann expressed support for restoring the process. Both Gunn and Hosemann advocated for using the process to amend general law rather than the Constitution.

If the proposal dies Tuesday, it would take a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to revive it. But it also takes a two-thirds vote to pass the resolution under normal circumstances restoring the initiative process because to do so means amending the Constitution. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers and approval by voters.

PODCAST: Breaking down the proposal to reinstate a Mississippi ballot initiative

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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.