Senate kills Mississippi ballot initiative without a vote

Published 4:27 pm Thursday, March 23, 2023

By Geoff Pender | Mississippi Today

The Senate on Thursday let a measure that would restore voters’ right to sidestep the Legislature and put measures on a statewide ballot die without taking a vote.

“After yesterday, I spoke to my colleagues and the colleagues I spoke to did not show enough support to do this this year,” said Senate Accountability Efficiency and Transparency Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg. “… We have a representative form of government that has worked for a long time, and I know of no senator who will not accept constituents’ calls, emails or visits if they have an issue we need to deal with. I believe in our representative form of government, and voters every four years have the opportunity to change who represents them.”

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Polk said there were too many differences between versions of the measure the Senate and House had passed to be ironed out in the final days of this year’s legislative session. Thursday was a deadline day for senators to take up the measure, and inaction killed the legislation.

Polk said that despite recent polling that shows strong voter support for reinstating the initiative process, he doesn’t believe the right to ballot initiative is top of mind for most Mississippians. He said he noticed this last week when he talked with constituents at a veterinarian’s office back home. They gave him a litany of issues they saw as important, Polk said.

“You know what was not on that list?” Polk said. “Ballot initiative.”

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.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who oversees the Senate, initially declined comment after the Senate adjourned Thursday, indicating he was busy and “not right now.” Polk, speaking to media, said that Hosemann had been “very vocal in wanting a ballot initiative” but lets his chairman make their own decisions.

Hosemann later sent out a written statement: “I have consistently said I am in favor of an initiative process in Mississippi. I trust the voters of the state, both in who they elect to office and on policy matters. A number of Republicans in the Senate have a different opinion on the initiative issue. This is the legislative process and we will continue that process.”

But many political observers and supporters of restoring the initiative had questioned Hosemann’s support for it, given he assigned the measure to Polk’s committee again this year after Polk had publicly voiced misgivings about reinstating ballot initiative.

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.

Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, said she was stunned to hear the Senate let the measure die Thursday without inviting more debate with the House on a compromise version. She disagrees with Polk about it not being a big issue with voters.

“My constituents think it’s necessary,” Summers said. “… People have issues they believe we are not addressing or listening to them on, like early voting, Medicaid expansion. Those are issues Mississippians are concerned about and when we don’t bring them to the forefront because of politics, they need to have this right to address them. Now we have to wait another year to do this.”

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.

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.

Polk said he “could not get close to” agreeing on the lower number of signatures in the House proposal, and doubted the House would agree to his higher threshold. He said the House also had made a change he found untenable that he just noticed in recent days: It removed a prohibition on using a ballot initiative to change Mississippi’s position as a “right to work” state, which generally keeps labor unions weak in such states.

“That was disturbing to me,” Polk said.

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.

The death of the bill on Thursday drew bipartisan criticism, including from Hosemann’s challenger in the Republican lieutenant governor primary, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville.

“Delbert Hosemann chose yet again to silence the voices of Mississippians and protect his own power by obstructing our ballot initiative process,” McDaniel said in a statement. “Delbert’s actions are both disgraceful and unconstitutional.”

But it’s also likely to be a partisan issue this election year. Rep. Robert Johnson III and Sen. Derrick Simmons, House and Senate minority leaders, issued a statement blasting the GOP for death of the bill.

“It showed, yet again, just how out of step Republicans are with each other and with the vast majority of Mississippians — including their own voters,” the statement said. “… Luckily for all of us, it’s an election year, and we’re happy to take our record on the campaign trail. We’re not so sure our colleagues can say the same.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.