Demise of ballot initiative reveals the power of one

Published 4:45 pm Saturday, April 9, 2022

The failure of the Legislature to restore the initiative process that allows citizens to place issues on the ballot for voters to decide could be seen as a case study on how a handful of people or even one lawmaker can determine whether a proposal lives or dies.

In this case, the legislator was Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Chair John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, who near the end of the just-completed 2022 session demanded a key change be placed in the final agreement restoring the initiative.

That demand resulted in the demise of efforts to restore the initiative.

The change Polk proposed was to more than double the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot.

Whether rank-and-file members of the Legislature would have agreed with Polk’s proposed change will never be known. Polk never proposed the change for legislators to publicly debate. Instead, he tried to make the change at the end of the session in closed door negotiations.

Polk is far from the first and will not be the last member of the Legislature to exert such influence. But there is a certain degree of irony that Polk exerted that influence on a proposal designed to give citizens the right to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot.

Just about all legislators went into the 2022 session saying they supported restoring the initiative that was ruled invalid in a controversial May 2021 ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The language that offended the Supreme Court justices said the signatures had to be gathered equally from the five U.S. House districts as they existed in 1990. The state lost a congressional district as a result of the 2000 U.S. Census

Multiple bills were filed at the start of the 2022 session to fix and to restore the process. Speaker Philip Gunn assigned most of the House bills to the Constitution Committee since the initiative is created in the Mississippi Constitution. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann assigned most of the Senate bills to Polk’s committee.

All of the Senate bills died when they were not taken up in committee, leaving the only vehicle to restore the initiative as House Concurrent Resolution 39. That proposal passed the House Constitution Committee and was approved by the full chamber.

The proposal mandated that the number of signatures of registered voters needed to place an issue on the ballot be equal to 12% of the vote in the last gubernatorial election — or roughly 90,000 signatures. That was the threshold in the original initiative process that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

On a deadline day — the final day for Polk to pass the bill out of his committee — he finally took up the House proposal to restore the initiative. He added a so-called reverse repealer to the bill — meaning it would be repealed automatically should it pass. Reverse repealers are common in the legislative process as a means to keep a bill alive while preventing it from passing without additional discussions.

The Senate voted on and overwhelmingly approved the original language requiring signatures be gathered equal to 12% of the vote in the last gubernatorial election. Polk or no one else tried to change that language.

But what Polk did by placing the reverse repealer in the bill was ensure that it would go to conference. In conference, three House members and three members of the Senate — but in reality Polk and House Constitution Chair Fred Shanks — would work out the final details of the bill.

In those closed-door discussions, Polk advocated the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot should be equal to 12% of the registered voters (those eligible to vote) — or about 238,000 compared to about 90,000 signatures in the original proposal.

Polk was advocating for that position in a conference report that legislators could not change. They either had to accept, reject or send the proposal back for further negotiations during the final days of the session.

Shanks would not agree. Gunn, who supported Shanks’ position, said Polk was asking for “an enormously high threshold that we felt the citizens would never be able to achieve.”

Polk maintained the high threshold “makes sure more Mississippians care about the issue being presented.”

Hosemann said he supported Polk’s position.

“There was concern that … it is so easy to get people to sign,” Hosemann said. “… I think that was a concern of both the House and the Senate.”

Perhaps it is a legitimate concern. And indeed any legislator could have tried to amend the bill and had public debate about the number of signatures that should be required to place an issue on the ballot. None did until Polk at the very end of the session.

 

This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.