Legislation to revive Mississippi’s ballot initiative process was kept alive when it was passed out of committee late Tuesday, a key deadline day.
But the proposal as written does not appear to allow voters to completely circumvent the legislative process, as is generally the goal of initiatives. It simply lets voters make suggestions to legislators, who can later choose to alter the wishes of voters.
The proposal includes confusing language that seems to say the Legislature, by a two-thirds vote, could amend the proposal that was placed on the ballot.
“We (legislators) are still the gatekeeper?” asked Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, of the proposal.
The author of the bill Sen. Tyler McCaughn, R-Newton, said under the proposal the Legislature would, indeed, be the gatekeeper.
Turner Ford continued: “What is the purpose of having an initiative process… if we can reject” the proposals offered by citizens.
“The whole point of the initiative process is to get around the Legislature,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson.
McCaughn said he understands the concerns expressed by Turner Ford and Blount and said he is willing to work with them to improve the bill as it moves through the process.
He said the key was to pass something out of committee on Tuesday, which was the deadline to pass bills out of committee in the chamber where they originated.
“I think we are to a point where we have to do something,” said McCaughn, adding voters want an initiative process. “This is a starting point.”
Blount said the proposal “needs a lot of work” as it moves through the process.
The bill then passed out of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee, which is the committee where Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann sent the proposal instead of the more traditional Constitution Committee.
The Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the state’s ballot initiative process in 2021 because it mandated the number of signatures be gathered equally among five congressional districts as they existed in 1990. The state, though, has only four districts, losing one as a result of the 2000 census.
After the 2021 Supreme Court ruling, most of the state’s political leadership, including Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn, said the Legislature would fix and revive the process.
But in the 2022 session, the proposal died when Hosemann and Accountability Chair John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, wanted to more than double the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot. Under the old initiative process that was struck down by the court, it required the signatures of 12% of the voters from the last gubernatorial election, or about 100,000 signatures, to place an issue on the ballot. The Senate leaders had supported in the 2022 session requiring about 240,000 signatures of registered voters be gathered to place an issue on the ballot.
The proposal passed out of committee on Tuesday also would require gathering about 240,000 signatures or 12% of all registered voters in the last presidential election.
“This should not be an easy threshold for them to make,” said Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, of increasing the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot.
The legislation also required at least 100 signatures of registered votes from each of the 82 counties and 10 signatures each from the about 300 municipalities. Blount pointed out there are municipalities in the state that have 50 residents or fewer and might not have 10 registered voters.
Blount asked why some legislators appear to be so fearful of the initiative process.
Blount said the old process was in effect for more than 30 years and “it was not out of control.” During that time, seven initiatives made the ballot and three of those were approved by voters.
House Constitution Chair Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, did not pass a House proposal by Tuesday’s deadline. He said he had been working with the Senate leadership and was certain an initiative proposal would come out of the Senate to be considered by the House. But the proposal, as it stands now, would not meet the criteria of what the House supported last year.