The Senate on Monday, at Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s request, voted to revive a measure it killed last week that would restore voters’ right to sidestep the Legislature and put issues on a statewide ballot.
“At my request, the Senate passed a suspension resolution to revive the initiative process (Monday) morning,” Hosemann said in a statement. “House leadership has also expressed a desire to continue working on this issue. If the House agrees to this suspension resolution, the Senate will again address legislation providing Mississippians with direct input on policy. We are hopeful to come to a final agreement before (the legislative session ends).”
As the 2023 legislative session enters what’s scheduled to be its final few days, the House would have to follow suit with a two-thirds vote to suspend rules and revive the ballot initiative measure. Then the two chambers would have to come to agreement on a final version.
But House Speaker Philip Gunn said he would need more information before deciding whether the House would take up the Senate proposal to suspend the rules to pass an initiative proposal. He said the House had passed two initiative proposals – one last year and another this year – and both had been rejected by Senate leaders.
“We are clear on our position,” Gunn said. Unless the position in the Senate had changed on the initiative, Gunn asked, “What would be accomplished?” by taking up the rules suspension resolution.
In general, Gunn said he does not like such rules suspension resolutions because they could be used to try to revive other bills that had died earlier in the legislative process.
Citing irreconcilable differences between House and Senate positions, Senate Accountability Efficiency and Transparency Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, let the ballot initiative measure die with a deadline without a full Senate vote last week. A similar measure died in the Legislature without a final vote last year, after the state Supreme Court in 2021 shot down the ballot initiative right Mississippi voters had for three decades.
Hosemann last week said he was in favor of restoring the right — which is popular with voters according to recent polling — but that he lets his chairmen, such as Polk, make their own decisions.
The death of the bill drew bipartisan criticism, including from Hosemann’s challenger in the lieutenant governor GOP primary Sen. Chris McDaniel. If it stands, the bill’s death is likely to be an issue with voters in this year’s statewide elections.
Many Mississippians were angry when the state’s high court stripped voters of this right in 2021. This was in a ruling on a medical marijuana initiative voters had overwhelmingly passed, taking matters in hand after lawmakers had dallied for years on the issue. Legislative leaders were quick at the time with vows they would restore this right to voters, fix the legal glitches that prompted the Supreme Court to rule it invalid. Many lawmakers said they support the right.
The House and Senate versions of the measure, which would have required ratification by voters in November, differed. But both would have greatly restricted voters’ right to ballot initiative compared to the process that had been in place since 1992. Many supporters of restoring the right have been angered about legislative leaders’ proposals to date. In the House, most Democrats despite supporting restoration of the right voted “present” on the House version they found it so restrictive.
House Minority Leader Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said if a bill is passed this session restoring the initiative, it should be a “clean” proposal that requires the same number of signatures to get an issue on the ballot as the initiative process that was struck down by the Supreme Court. Johnson said the proposal should not ban issues, such as abortion, from being taken up through the initiative process as was in the most recent House version.
The Senate position on the initiative would require the signatures of at least 240,000 registered voters to place an issue on a statewide ballot. The House version would require about 106,000, nearer the previous threshold required for the last 30 years.
Under both proposals, the Legislature by a simple majority vote could change or repeal an initiative approved by the electorate. Unlike the previous process voters had for decades, voters could only pass or change state laws, not the state constitution.
Senate President Protem Dean Kirby, who proposed the rules suspension to revive the measure, on Monday said he believes many senators still support the higher signature threshold but, “Hopefully we can work out some kind of compromise.”
“We all want something passed,” Kirby said. “I think a lot of people out there do want a ballot initiative and we are going to make an effort.”
A recent Mississippi Today/Siena College poll shows Mississippi voters across the spectrum want their right to put issues directly on a statewide ballot restored.
The poll showed 72% favor reinstating ballot initiative, with 12% opposed and 16% either don’t know or have no opinion. Restoring the right garnered a large majority among Democrats, Republicans, independents and across all demographic, geographic and income lines.
Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, heard about the Senate’s attempt to revive the measure as he walked off the House floor Monday afternoon.
“Good,” Creekmore said. “Let’s get it done.”