The Mississippi Legislature ended the 2022 session not restoring the initiative process that allowed citizens to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled the process invalid in May because of a technical error in the language detailing how the process works. When the Supreme Court ruled, most everyone agreed the Legislature would fix the language and restore the initiative. But during the 2022 session, House and Senate leaders could not agree on how to fix the language.
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Both chambers passed legislation earlier in the session restoring the process where an issue could be placed on the ballot if an initiative sponsor garnered the signatures equaling 12% of the vote in the last governor’s election, which would equal about 90,000 signatures. But in the conference process where only three House and three Senate members are allowed to negotiate differences in the legislation, Senate negotiators led by John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, insisted on a much higher number of signatures be gathered to place an issue on the ballot. Polk called for the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot be equal to 12% of the registered voters as of the last presidential election or about 240,000 signatures.
House Constitution Chair Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, said House negotiators believe that the mandated number of signatures should remain at 12% of those voting in the last gubernatorial election as it was before the Court ruled the process invalid.
“We are going to remain firm,” Shanks said, adding he would try again in the 2023 session to restore the initiative process. “It is hard enough to get the signatures without increasing them.”
But Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, said the signature mandate needs to be increased.
“There was concern that … it is so easy to get people to sign,” Hosemann said. “… I think that was a concern of both the House and the Senate.”
He said there are companies that specialize in gathering signatures for initiative efforts and that it is much easier now to gather signatures than when the mandate equaling 12% of the number of people voting in the last gubernatorial election was put in place.
“We’re trying to get a number that makes sense,” Hosemann said.
But House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, maintained the Senate was asking for “an enormously high threshold that we felt the citizens never be able to achieve.”
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 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 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.
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.
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.
It marked the first time in the modern era that the judiciary in any state had struck down an entire initiative process, according to Caroline Avakian, director of strategic communications for the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national, pro-initiative non-profit.
While the only time in the modern era, the state Supreme Court landmark decision is not the only time a ballot initiative process has been ruled invalid by the judiciary. In the 1920s the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a previous initiative process approved by state voters. After that 1920s ruling, it was not restored until the early 1990s.
Gov. Tate Reeves said recently he supported restoring the initiative. He said he does not intend to call a special session for the Legislature to consider the initiative, but might include it in the agenda if he called a special session for other topics.