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#MSLeg Roundup: New Voting Restrictions, Decriminalizing Fentanyl Test Strips

Michael Watson speaking at a mic with one hand partially raised in gesture
Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson celebrated the passage of new voting restrictions on March 14, 2023, saying that banning “ballot harvesting” is necessary “to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat” in Mississippi elections. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Mississippians who fail to vote in at least one local, state, or federal election over a two-year period could be listed as inactive and only able to vote by affidavit ballot if state lawmakers approve and Gov. Tate Reeves signs House Bill 1310 into law. It is headed to conference after the House on Tuesday disagreed with the Senate’s modifications.

After failing to vote at any time across or between two federal elections (meaning a presidential election and a congressional midterm), local election officials would send voters a notice. Four years after receiving a notice, authorities would purge an individual’s name from the voter rolls. To prevent this purge, the individual would have to respond to the notice within four years; vote in any election during those years (including county, municipal, state, or federal elections); be an active or reserve military personnel; or respond to a jury-duty call.

The bill also includes provisions for removing noncitizens from the electoral roll. By Jan. 1, 2025, the secretary of state would compare the state’s voter roll with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety’s driver’s license database to flag potential noncitizens who must provide proof of citizenship within 30 days.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi opposes the bill.

“As one of the few states with neither online voter registration nor no-excuse early voting, Mississippi consistently ranks amongst the most difficult states to vote in the nation,” the organization said in a tweet thread on March 10. “This harmful bill will continue that legacy by further disenfranchising Mississippi voters.”

An earlier version of the bill allowed the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office “to audit election procedures in the counties of this state.” In a statement on Feb. 27, Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson said the bill “would further preserve the integrity of Mississippi elections.”

“Through the version of HB 1310 we support, our office would be granted authority to conduct post-election audits,” he said.

However, on March 7, the Senate passed an amended version of the bill that only allows Watson’s office to audit precincts in the 2023 state and 2024 federal elections by a random selection. On Tuesday, the House declined to approve the changes, meaning lawmakers will likely have to work out the details in conference.

Ban on ‘Ballot Harvesting’

Secretary Watson celebrated the Legislature’s passage of another bill that he described as a ban on “ballot harvesting” in a tweet Tuesday. Senate Bill 2358 defines “ballot harvesting” to refer to a person knowingly collecting and transmitting “a ballot that was mailed to another person.”

The exceptions include a family member, household member and caregiver of the mailed ballot recipient, including an election official or an employee of the U.S. Postal Service.

“Great work by the MS Legislature on Senate Bill 2358, which bans ballot harvesting with very few exceptions for family members, etc.,” Watson wrote. “The goal remains continuing to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in MS!”

Violation of the bill’s provision is punishable by a fine of up to $3,000 or imprisonment in the county jail of less than one year. The bill is headed to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk for his signature after earning approval from both chambers.

Fentanyl Testing Strips Legal

Mississippians can now possess fentanyl testing strips after Gov. Tate Reeves signed House Bill 722 into law on Monday, decriminalizing the materials and removing them from the controlled substance law’s definition of “paraphernalia.”

In a tweet Tuesday, the governor gave his rationale. “I’ve signed HB 722 which decriminalizes fentanyl testing strips,” he wrote. “It’s a sad reality that fentanyl overdoses are skyrocketing as a result of an open border.” He did not elaborate further on those claims, but said the legislation “will help to save lives.”

At a Legislative Joint Drug Policy Committee Hearing in October, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director Steven Maxwell said his agency supports the move.

“The Bureau of Narcotics is in support of making fentanyl test strips available for Mississippians who are battling substance-use disorders,” he said. “Families in Mississippi need all of the options available to them as they deal with drug addiction to prevent the next drug overdose. People who are addicted to drugs, they’re taking drugs to escape or to get high, they don’t want to die.”

Official headshot of Col. Steven Maxwell, Director of Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics
Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director Steven Maxwell said on Oct. 11, 2022, that “families in Mississippi need all of the options available to them as they deal with drug addiction to prevent the next drug overdose.” Photo courtesy Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics

Amid concerns about the over-the-counter substance Tianeptine, the Mississippi House sought to make it a Schedule I drug with House Bill 4, but Senate amended it to make it a Schedule III drug instead. On Tuesday, the House agreed to the changes, and the bill now heads to the governor’s desk. Making it schedule III means the possession of small amounts of Tianeptine would be a misdemeanor, not a felony.

House Changed Threshold for Ballot Initiatives

A bill to bring back citizen-led ballot initiatives, Senate Concurrent Resolution 533, headed back to the Senate on March 10 after the House added language prohibiting its use for abortion initiatives.

The House changes also lowered the threshold for the signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot from 12% of all eligible voters to 12% of the total number of voters who cast ballots in the most recent election for governor. The House sent the bill back to the Senate on Friday for either approval or additional work in conference between the two chambers.

Protestors holing up signs that say My Voice Matters
On March 10, 2023, the Mississippi House of Representatives added language to Senate Concurrent Resolution 533 prohibiting the use of citizen-led ballot initiatives for abortion initiatives. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Though Mississippi is the state that led the successful effort to overturn Roe v. Wade at the U.S. Supreme Court, polls show that a majority of Mississippi voters disagree with the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and do not support broad abortion bans like the one in effect now.

When anti-abortion activists put a wide-ranging “Personhood” abortion ban on the ballot in 2011, which also could have outlawed some forms of contraception and in-vitro fertilization, voters rejected it by a 58%-42% vote.

After voters approved a medical-marijuana program by ballot initiative in 2020, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the ballot-initiative process on a technicality in 2021, which killed efforts to use it to expand Medicaid and implement an early voting system.

12-Month Postpartum Coverage Awaits Signature

Gov. Reeves’ likely signature would make one year of Medicaid coverage for new mothers a reality after the House and Senate passed Senate Bill 2212. He has until Friday to sign the bill, which he has indicated he supports.

Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn allowed Senate Bill 2212 to advance to the floor of the House on March 7, 2023. Though the speaker voted against it, the House passed the bill in a 92-27 vote last week, following the Senate’s 41-11 vote in February.

Philip Gunn in the Legislature building
Speaker Philip Gunn will end his 12-year speakership with the 2023 legislative session—though he says his career in public service is not yet finished. Photo by Nick Judin

In late February, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves endorsed the legislation for the first time, citing the fact that Mississippi successfully led the charge to overturn Roe v. Wade in last year’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state then implemented a near-total abortion ban that closed Mississippi’s only abortion clinic. State health officials estimate the ban will result in about 5,000 additional births each year.

“That legal victory ensures that more babies will be born into this great state and this great country. I believe that is a beautiful thing,” the governor said in a statement on Feb. 26. “I also believe that added stress will be felt by more Mississippi moms. We have to love them. We have to support them. And in a post-Dobbs world, we may even have to be willing to do things that make us ‘philosophically uncomfortable.’”

Controversial Jackson Bills Still Alive

Efforts to expand state control of the capital city continue. Senate Bill 2343 would expand the boundaries of the Capitol Complex Improvement District, which is a portion of the City of Jackson, and with it the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction throughout the capital city and beyond. The expanded jurisdiction would include parts of the City of Ridgeland.

On Tuesday, the Senate declined to concur with changes the House made to S.B. 2343, however, which could send it to conference for lawmakers from each chamber to work out an agreement.

House Bill 1020, which has been a subject of ongoing controversy, began as a creation of a new inferior court in the capitol district but now focuses on expanding the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction to cover the entire city of Jackson and funding five special judges until 2016. The Senate amended the bill on March 7 and returned it to the House for concurrence on March 9. It no longer gives a timeline for Jackson’s mayor to sign a memorandum of understanding on the terms of cooperation between the Capitol Police and the City of Jackson, which Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said he would not sign, but the bill would not change the Capitol Police’s proposed jurisdiction whether officials agree to an MOU or not.

Cliff Johnson, center, with the MacArthur Justice Center, voices his opposition to Mississippi House Bill 1020, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, during a protest at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. The bill would create a separate court system in the Capitol Complex Improvement District in Jackson. Now the Legislature is backing away from the courts plan.
The Mississippi House of Representatives passed House Bill 1020 on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, to create a court system over the Capitol Complex Improvement District in Jackson, Miss., with unelected judges and prosecutors handling cases in the district. Here, opponents of House bill 1020 protest on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, with University of Mississippi MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson speaking from behind a map of the Capitol Complex Improvement District. The Legislature is now backing away from that plan. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

House Bill 698 would limit water and sewer billing to usage instead of property value, a suggestion county-appointed Jackson Water manager Ted Henifin has made. The Senate made various changes to H.B. 698, including limiting the billing to “the actual cost to operate and maintain the system” and adding a caveat that a municipality can use flat-rate billing if it is unable to measure usage.

“In the event a municipality is unable to meet the requirement of billing based solely on volumetric usage, the municipality may bill based on a flat fee rate. In such circumstances, the municipality may set different flat-fee rates for different classifications of users, but the municipality shall not discriminate in setting flat fee rates among members of the same classification,” the Senate version adds.

Another controversial proposal to establish a regional utility authority to take over the City of Jackson’s water and sewer system died on the calendar when the House did not take up Senate Bill 2889 by the March 8 deadline.

House Bill 993 would have prohibited the One Lake flood control and waterfront development project, whose proponents have proposed it as a means to stem flooding in Jackson. Those who oppose it said it would affect marine life in certain regions of the state and could make the flooding worse. but the bill did not make it out of the House Ways and Means Committee and died on Jan. 31.

House Bill 1168 would have limited the City of Jackson’s spending of its 1% special sales tax to water-system issues and not other infrastructure projects. The Senate passed an amended version that does not require the City to spend all its special sales tax on water, but does retain language that would penalize the City by withholding funds if it does not file yearly audits.

The Jackson legislative delegation was the only holdout in that Senate vote on H.B. 1168, with Sens. David Blount, Hillman Frazier, John Horhn, and Sollie Norwood voting present. The remaining senators voted for the measure, and the House can either agree to the changes or the two chambers will have to work out the differences at a later date.

Criminal Justice Bills

The number of assistant attorneys and criminal investigators statewide could increase with House Bill 83 after the Senate modified it by adding a reverse repealer to force further discussion on it. A reverse repealer sets the expiration of the law for the day before its enactment and is a legislative tactic to force further discussion on bills between the chambers.

Another criminal justice bill, House Bill 1215, would have suspended child-support payment requirements for incarcerated persons. It died on the calendar after the Senate Judiciary Division A Committee did not take it up. Senate Bill 2082, which would also relieve incarcerated people of child-support requirements, is headed for conference.

The bill to standardize rape-kit processing in Mississippi passed both the Senate and the House. The Senate version increased the number of days the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory has to test rape kits after receipt from law enforcement from 45 days to 60 days. On Monday, the Senate returned H.B. 485 to the House, which on Tuesday declined to concur to the changes and asked for a conference between the chambers.

“This is a leap forward for the rights of all survivors in Mississippi, and we are excited for Governor Reeves to sign this vital bill into law,” Joyful Heart Foundation Director of Policy and Advocacy Ilse Knecht said in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press after the Senate passed the bill on March 9.

The upper chamber added a reverse repealer to House Bill 995, which clarifies language regarding spousal rape in the State, and the House has requested a conference between the two chambers on the bill. Spousal rape is currently illegal in the state if it involves “forcible penetration against the victim’s will,” but not in instances where a victim is drugged and unable to consent or resist.

The Mississippi Senate did not agree to changes made by the House to Senate Bill 2079, which creates a program granting teachers in Mississippi the ability to carry guns on the school campus. On Wednesday, the upper chamber invited the House to a conference to work out the difference.

‘A Policy of Protectionism’

On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves signed House Bill 401, which prohibits electric-vehicle manufacturers like Tesla and Rivian from setting up company-owned stores to sell cars in the state and requires them to use traditional franchised vehicle dealership models instead. Last year, Reeves celebrated Nissan’s plans to produce electric vehicles in Canton, Miss.

“Today, I signed HB401 to restore MS’s auto dealer franchise law back to how it had been interpreted for the last 50 years,” the governor tweeted yesterday. “Almost 200 small businesses in communities across our state are seeking assurances that big manufacturers can’t just destroy their businesses. That’s fair!”

“I also recognize that innovation in this industry is inevitable. And with innovation comes new companies with new business models,” he added. “I am committed to find long-term solutions—in an ever changing market. I look forward to working with all parties going forward to do just that.

Tate Reeves speaking in front of the state seal
On March 14, 2023, Gov. Tate Reeves signed a that prohibits electric car manufacturers from selling directly to customers and requires them to use a traditional franchised vehicle dealership model. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippi Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascaogula, voted against the measure and cited it as potentially anti-competition. “In today’s world, if you don’t innovate, you lose out. We as a state cannot afford to lose out,” Wiggins told The Associated Press Tuesday. “My vote against the bill was a vote for capitalism, competition and innovation rather than for a policy of protectionism.”

On March 3, the Associated Press reported that Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, warned that lawmakers “could reprieve our citizens of opportunities they really ought not be deprived of.”

“Maybe we just like being last all the time. Maybe it’s a badge of honor—we’re the last ones to change,” he told his colleagues on the Senate floor.

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