Initiative process came of age in 2015

Published 12:00 pm Monday, January 4, 2016

By Sid Salter

Mississippi’s initiative and referendum process came of age in 2015 and saw almost every eventuality tested in the political process. In particular, the process was tested on Initiative 42 and Initiative 48.

Initiative 42 sought to put “adequate and efficient” public school funding in the state constitution and empower the state’s chancery courts to enforce such funding. Initiative 48 sought to “legalize the use, cultivation and sale of cannabis and industrial hemp. Cannabis crimes would be punished in a manner similar to, or to a lesser degree than, alcohol related crimes.”

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Initiative 42 not only made it to the ballot, but it also was the defining issue in the 2015 statewide elections. From start to finish, the pro-42 effort was a well-oiled, well-financed political effort that had grassroots support and enough money to be formidable in the court of public opinion.

At the ballot box, voters by about 4 percent rejected changing the state constitution to boost school funding, but those same voters embraced the original Initiative 42 language over the legislative alternative.

Initiative 48, on the other hand, lacked a broad-based organizational scheme, was short on financial resources, and unlike public education, sought to change state law in a way that many people were simply opposed to signing a petition to support in terms of legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana.

Unlike 42, Initiative 48 never really made it out of the starting gate to get on the 2016 ballot — earning only 13,320 of the needed 107,216 signatures.

The initiative and referendum process in Mississippi is one that was designed by the Mississippi Legislature to be difficult for those residents who wish to circumvent lawmakers and get into the business of directly writing or changing laws for themselves.

That’s why the process has been invoked only 58 times since 1992. The majority of those initiative efforts have simply expired because initiators couldn’t or didn’t get the required number of signatures on their initiative petitions.

In and of itself, the petition process is daunting. For an initiative measure to be placed on the ballot, a minimum of 107,216 certified signatures must be gathered with at least 21,443 certified signatures from each of the five congressional districts as they existed in the year 2000. Signatures must be certified by county circuit clerks. A completed petition is filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, along with a $500 filing fee.

Then, if the petition hurdle is cleared, there is the matter of ballot language to be cleared — then the measure has to be submitted to the Legislature and if the lawmakers choose to do so, they can submit an alternative to the initiative on the same ballot.

Once an initiative actually makes it to the ballot, the proposed initiative not only has to receive a majority of the total votes cast for that particular initiative, but it must also receive more than 40 percent of the total votes cast in that election.

Bottom line, getting a ballot initiative passed in Mississippi on an issue as universally respected as public education — even with what essentially was a campaign staff and $3 million plus in campaign finances — proved problematic.

So on a ballot initiative as controversial and polarizing as legalizing marijuana in a Bible belt state with neither of those advantages (organization or money), one has to wonder just what initiative organizers were smoking (so to speak) when they thought that effort would succeed?

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at