Conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville and those who support abortion rights are two winners from Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Chair John Polk’s decision to kill legislation reviving the state’s ballot initiative process.
The initiative proposal died late in the 2023 legislative session when Polk refused to call it up for consideration before the full Senate on a key deadline day. The initiative would allow citizens to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot for voters to decide.
McDaniel, who is challenging Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann in this year’s Republican primary, can hammer the incumbent for letting the initiative restoration legislation perish. Whether the death of the initiatives will be a pivotal issue in the GOP primary for the underdog McDaniel is debatable, but it at least creates an opening. And Hosemann, who is still the odds-on favorite to win re-election, can at least argue that during the final days of the session he made one last effort to revive legislation restoring the initiative. That effort, of course, was unsuccessful as House Speaker Philip Gunn refused Hosemann’s overtures to revive the process late in the session.
Polk, a Hattiesburg Republican, stressed it was his decision to allow the proposal to die. He said Hosemann supported it. But as presiding officer of the Senate, Hosemann could have assigned a committee chair other than Polk to handle the legislation. Hosemann should not be surprised by the outcome. After all, last year Polk took unusual parliamentary measures to kill the initiative, yet Hosemann sent the measure to his committee again this year, ultimately giving a senator who opposes the initiative the power over whether the process is revived.
After the Supreme Court ruled the state’s initiative process unconstitutional in May 2021 based on a technicality, both Hosemann and Gunn vowed to fix the problems cited by the Supreme Court and restore the process. Gunn even advocated at the time for the governor to call a special session to revive the initiative immediately.
“We 100% believe in the right of the people to use the initiative and referendum process to express their views on public policy,” Gunn said in May 2021. “If the legislature does not act on an issue that the people of Mississippi want, then the people need a mechanism to change the law. I support the governor calling us into a special session to protect this important right of the people.”
Yet the action of Gunn, like that of Hosemann, put the prospects of reviving the initiative in jeopardy. Gunn and his leadership team incorporated in their initiative proposal a ban on using the process to change laws that place a strict ban on abortion.
Gunn, who is retiring at the end of the year, tried to use the legislation restoring the initiative process to further one of his most ardent legislative goals — to ensure most abortions will be banned in Mississippi.
In truth, many who would otherwise support restoring the initiative process are probably at least secretly happy with Polk’s action. The initiative restoration legislation as fashioned by Gunn and his leadership team created a conundrum for many Democrats or people supporting abortion rights.
Remember, if the Legislature had passed legislation reviving the initiative, it still would have had to be approved by voters in November.
The reason for the political conundrum is that people who support abortion rights could have been conflicted on whether to vote to revive the initiative process or to vote against it because of the abortion provision.
Before casting that vote, though, people would have needed to understand that if the initiative restoration proposal was rejected by voters in November, lawmakers would have argued that the people had spoken and did not want to reinstate the process.
It is safe to assume that in their heart of hearts, many legislators are not enamored with a process that allows voters to bypass them and place issues on the ballot. They would be looking for ways to prevent that from happening.
In other words, if the initiative had reached the ballot this November and had been rejected, it is likely that voters would not for a long time have had another opportunity to restore the process.
So some Mississippians would have had to decide whether to vote for an initiative that could be used to address issues such as expanding Medicaid but not abortion, or just vote against the whole thing.
But now, thanks to Polk’s action, there can be an effort in 2024 with Gunn no longer serving in the Legislature to pass a clean ballot initiative process.
The question might be whether the presiding officers of the Senate and the House, whomever they might be, will be willing to ensure that happens.