JACKSON, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – The devil will be in the details as legislators attempt to revive the state’s ballot initiative process that was killed by the Mississippi Supreme Court in May — and lawmakers appear far from a consensus on how, exactly, to get there.
At the heart of the issue is whether the ballot initiative process should be used to try to amend or change the Mississippi Constitution, general law, or both. When a proposal is added to the Constitution, it is much more difficult to change.
“I hope we spend some time researching that and find something that works for everyone. We need to make sure we get this right,” said Sen. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, who as chair of the Constitution Committee most likely will play a key role in any effort to revive the ballot initiative process.
Most legislators agree that they need to pass a resolution to place on the ballot a proposal to re-establish the state’s ballot initiative process. But there are sharp differences in how that resolution should be crafted.
For instance, House Speaker Philip Gunn believes that the ballot initiative process should be changed so that it can be used to alter general law and not the Constitution.
Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, argues that the Legislature should re-create the initiative process as it was with the only exception being fixing the language that resulted in the Supreme Court striking down the process.
The Supreme Court struck down both medical marijuana, an initiative that was approved by voters in November, and the entire ballot initiative process. In a 6-3 ruling in May, the court said the constitutional mandate of gathering signatures equally among five congressional districts to place an initiative on the ballot was invalid since the state has had only four districts since the 2000 Census. When the Legislature proposed the initiative process and voters approved it in 1992, the state had five districts.
“Some people are talking about making it more difficult,” Rep. Robert Johnson said. “It is funny that is happening after people are beginning to take partisanship out of the equation and try to use the process for pocketbook issues and for issues that genuinely affect their lives.”
Recent initiative efforts that were halted by the Supreme Court ruling dealt with early voting and expanding Medicaid — both proposals that are opposed by much of the state’s governing Republican majority. And, of course, medical marijuana was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November after years where the issue was ignored by the Legislature.
Soon after the Supreme Court ruling, Gunn voiced support for the governor calling a special session “to fix” the initiative process so that the people can continue to use it. But in fixing the process, Gunn advocates that the initiative be changed so that it can be used to pass general laws, not amend the Constitution.
“That is the way most states do it,” Gunn said.
Gunn and others point out that once an issue is placed in the Constitution it is difficult to amend or to change. To change the Constitution requires approval by a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the Legislature and approval by voters during a statewide election. The other way to change the Constitution before the court ruling was through the initiative process.
“We need to do some research and see what other states are doing and make sure Mississippians have equal access to the ballot initiative process,” said Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, said committee chairs in the upper chamber are doing that research.