Mississippi could revive a form of initiative process

Published 8:49 am Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Mississippi legislators are working to set a new way for people to petition to put issues on statewide ballots, months after the state Supreme Court tossed out the state’s old initiative process.

The House voted 91-26 Tuesday to adopt House Concurrent Resolution 39, sending it to the Senate for more work.

The resolution would allow people to collect signatures on petitions to put proposed state laws on the ballot.

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The state’s old initiative process allowed people to collect signatures to put proposed state constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The state Supreme Court ruled in May that Mississippi’s former initiative process was out of date because it specified petitioners should collect one-fifth of their signatures from each congressional district. The process was set in the 1990s, when Mississippi had five congressional districts.

Mississippi dropped from five congressional districts to four after the 2000 census because of stagnant population growth the previous decade. But, the initiative process was never updated to specify one-fourth of the signatures should come from each of the four districts.

The initiative process came into question when the mayor of Madison filed a legal challenge of a medical marijuana initiative on the November 2020 ballot. Voters approved the initiative by a wide margin, but a majority of justices ruled six months later that the initiative was not properly on the ballot because of the signature issue, and that the initiative process itself was unworkable.

Republican Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth said Tuesday that the new proposal would allow up to five proposed laws to be on a ballot at one time. He also said it would allow people to vote on issues that might not need to be enshrined in the constitution.

“It allows us not to be leveraged by political whims of the day,” Bain said.
Changing an existing law is simpler than changing the constitution.

Legislators can vote to change or repeal laws, but constitutional amendments must go on a statewide ballot.

The resolution says legislators would have to wait at least two years to change or repeal any law enacted through the proposed new initiative process. They could act within two years if the new law is detrimental to the “public peace, health, safety or financial solvency” of the state.

Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez tried unsuccessfully to make changes that he said would make the new initiative process easier to understand. For example, he sought to remove a requirement for each initiative to include an analysis of its potential effect on the state budget.

He said most people don’t have access to experts for such information.

“Don’t make it prohibitive for people,” Johnson said.

The Republican-controlled House rejected all of Johnson’s proposals, but Bain said House and Senate negotiators could discuss them in a few weeks.