House and Senate negotiators say they are still working to reach an agreement to restore the state’s initiative process that allows Mississippians to bypass the legislative process and place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.
Most of the focus as legislators strive to conclude the session either this weekend or early next week has been on developing a state budget and spending the bulk of $1.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. But negotiators said they are still working on fixing and restoring the initiative process that was ruled invalid this past May by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
When asked if a deal was still possible, Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, the lead Senate negotiator, replied “absolutely.”
Still, it appears the two sides are far from reaching agreement.
Both Polk and Rep. Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, the lead House negotiator, said the primary disagreement centers on the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot. The House position is that the number of signatures should be equal to 12% of the people voting in the last gubernatorial election.
The Senate wants the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot to be equal to 12% of the registered voters (not those voting) on the day of the last presidential election.
The required number of signatures of registered voters needed under the House plan would be about 100,000 while under the Senate proposal it would be about 240,000.
“I don’t see how a grassroots organization would be able to get that number of signatures,” Shanks said of the Senate proposal.
Polk said he supported the high number of signatures because “it makes sure more Mississippians (at the ballot box) care about the issue being presented.”
The state’s previous initiative process that was struck down by the state Supreme Court required the signatures equal to 12% of the voters from the last gubernatorial election. The Supreme Court struck down the proposal because the process required the mandated number of signatures to be gathered equally from the five congressional districts as they existed in 1990. The state lost a congressional seat in 2000.
The new language pending before the Legislature would require the signatures to be gathered equally from ever how many congressional districts the state has.
Both sides agree that the new proposal should 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 last year allowed voters to amend the state Constitution.
Legislative leaders said they would prefer the process be used to amend general law because it is more difficult to change the state Constitution. Changing the Constitution requires the approval of voters.
It is likely that any agreement also would prohibit legislators from changing any initiative approved by voters for two years except by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature. Any compromise also might include language requiring initiative sponsors to detail how to pay for any proposal that will cost the state money.
The initiative process was struck down at the same time the medical marijuana initiative that was approved by voters in November 2020 was ruled invalid by the Supreme Court.
At the time House Speaker Philip Gunn asked Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session the restore the initiative process. Reeves did not. Earlier this session legislators passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana but have been unable to agree on how to restore the initiative.
Any proposal passed by the Legislature to restore the initiative also must be approved by voters.