Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and any state senator with an opponent for reelection this year can expect to field lots of questions and campaign-ad jabs about the Senate killing a measure to restore voters’ right to sidestep the Legislature and put measures on a statewide ballot.
Senate Accountability Efficiency and Transparency Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, let a ballot initiative measure die without a vote. A last-minute Hail Mary attempt to revive it led by Hosemann in the final days of this year’s legislative session failed.
Now, the soonest a right guaranteed Mississippians in the state constitution could be restored would be November of 2024 — provided lawmakers next year pass a measure and put it before voters for ratification in the federal elections.
“I was for ballot initiative and I didn’t get it,” Hosemann said on Monday, after lawmakers ended the 2023 legislative session on Saturday. But many political observers, and Hosemann’s primary challenger Sen. Chris McDaniel, lay at least some of the blame on Hosemann for it failing for the second year in a row. Hosemann routed the bill to Polk’s committee again, knowing Polk himself is against reinstating the initiative, and that he would play hardball demanding restrictions on its use in any negotiations with the House.
In a statement, McDaniel said: “Delbert Hosemann chose yet again to silence the voices of Mississippians and protect his own power by obstructing our ballot initiative process. Delbert’s actions are both disgraceful and unconstitutional.”
Democratic lawmakers slammed the GOP statehouse leadership as “out of step … with each other and the vast majority of Mississippians — including their own voters.”
Brandon Presley, Democratic challenger to Gov. Tate Reeves, is even trying to make hay of the issue in gubernatorial race, saying, “Tate Reeves and his allies in the Legislature didn’t lift a finger to restore the people’s right to petition their government because the status quo gives them and their lobbyist pals more power.” He said that if he were governor he would have pushed lawmakers to pass it, and would call the Legislature back into special session to restore the right after it failed.
Hosemann, when the measure died, said he was for it but he lets his Senate chairman make their own decisions. But then he pushed the Senate to take the relatively rare step of suspending rules and deadlines with a two-thirds vote to allow it to be revived in the eleventh hour of the session. This vote passed, but it would have required the House to do likewise, then a new bill would have to be introduced, agreements haggled out, then passed by both chambers.
House Speaker Philip Gunn on Monday said Hosemann’s last-ditch effort with the ballot initiative was too little, too late. He said having an agreement would have been worth suspending rules to pass a bill, but the Senate was only proposing another counter offer and wanting to haggle more, and lawmakers were having to focus on passing a state budget and finishing the session.
“We tried,” Gunn said. “The House passed it two years in a row. Our position has been pretty well stated. What we passed twice was pretty close to what it was originally, and the Senate was not willing to take that … If they wanted to do the initiative they had every opportunity.”
The main sticking point — besides the Senate chairman in charge of handling the initiative being against it — between the House and Senate was the number of signatures of registered voters required to put a measure on a statewide ballot. The Senate’s original position would have required at least 240,000 signatures. The House version would have required about 106,000, nearer the previous threshold required for the last 30 years.
The Senate’s last-minute counter offer, Gunn said, would have required more than 150,000 signatures, a figure he said was still too high.
Otherwise, both chambers’ proposals would have greatly restricted voters’ right to ballot initiative compared to the process that had been in place since 1992. Under both, the Legislature by a simple majority vote could change or repeal an initiative approved by the electorate.
Recent polls have shown Mississippi voters across the spectrum want their right to put issues directly on a statewide ballot restored. A Mississippi Today/Siena College 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.
The state Supreme Court nullified Mississippi’s ballot initiative in 2021, in a ruling on a medical marijuana initiative voters had overwhelmingly passed, taking matters in hand after lawmakers dickered over the issue for years. Legislative leaders, including Gunn and Hosemann, vowed they would restore the right to voters, fix the legal glitches that prompted the court to rule it invalid.