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Mississippi Ballot Initiative Effort Revived in Senate, But Obstacles Remain

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, speaking to the press in his office
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said Senate leaders “are hopeful to come to a final agreement” on restoring the citizen-led ballot initiative after the Senate suspended deadline rules to bring back Senate Concurrent Resolution 533 into consideration on March 27, 2023. Photo by Nick Judin

Hopes for restoring a ballot initiative system in Mississippi are alive again as the Mississippi Senate reopened the possibility one week after a Senate leader killed the legislation last week amid differences with the Mississippi House.

Still, House Speaker Philip Gunn told the Mississippi Free Press on Monday that he is unconvinced that the move will lead to any agreement between the two chambers.

After Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee Chairmen John Polk did not bring Senate Concurrent Resolution 533 up for consideration by the March 23 deadline, the effort was all but dead. On Monday morning, though, the Senate passed a resolution suspending the deadlines rules for the bill on Monday.

The House would need to similarly suspend the rules before lawmakers could move forward with the effort, which would likely require negotiations between the two chambers.

“If they’ll pass the suspension resolution and then we can get a bill, then there is a chance still, and we’re just fighting it till the last minute trying to get something,” Senate President Pro Tempore Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, told the Mississippi Free Press Monday. “I think the majority of the people do want some type of ballot initiative, and I think that we’re going to make every effort in the Senate to try to get it for them.”

Lt Gov. Delbert Hosemann released a statement on the suspension of the rule on Monday.

“At my request, the Senate passed a suspension resolution to revive the initiative process this morning,” he said in the statement. “House leadership has also expressed a desire to continue working on this issue. If the House agrees to this suspension resolution, the Senate will again address legislation providing Mississippians with direct input on policy. We are hopeful to come to a final agreement before” the close of this Legislative session. The 2023 session is in its final week.

Hosemann has faced criticism on the issue from Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who is challenging him for lieutenant governor in this year’s state elections. Ever since the Mississippi Supreme Court nullified the ballot initiative process in a 2021 ruling that also killed a voter-approved medical marijuana law, McDaniel has called for the Legislature to restore the process as it was in 2021.

“Delbert has tried to make the process very, very difficult, if not impossible to actually access and get something done,” the Jones County senator said in a Facebook live broadcast with supporters on March 24. “Now that should beg the question, who governs whom, right? My position is the people of this state have to have a say. My position is we work for the people, not the other way around. But if we decline or do not allow those people to petition, we take away their power. That is not the right approach.”

Senate Concurrent Resolution 533, which lawmakers passed in the upper chamber on Feb. 9, would restore a more limited version of the ballot initiative process that would allow voters to pass laws that legislators could later amend or repeal. The old system allowed voters to amend the state constitution, which prevented lawmakers from repealing or altering voter-approved initiatives.

Speaker Philip Gunn inside the Mississippi state capitol
After the Mississippi Senate suspended the deadline rules to bring up Senate Concurrent Resolution 533 on March 27, 2023, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn (pictured), R-Jackson, said he “does not know what purpose it serves” because the two bodies remained at odds on specifics in the legislation. Photo by Kayode Crown

House Speaker Philip Gunn did not express similar enthusiasm when he answered the Mississippi Free Press’ questions at the Capitol on Monday. He said he is wary of rule suspensions and unaware of any concessions the Senate was willing to make.

“We’ve made our position clear twice. Both last year and this year, we have passed bills that closely mirror the original law, and so I don’t know what purpose it serves if there’s not going to be any sort of movement or new idea,” he said. “We sent it down there, and they killed it. So I’m curious to know what additional proposal they’re going to have, and I’ve yet to see anything. I don’t know what that accomplishes without knowing what the new proposal is going to be.”

“It’s a bad practice to start because every time somebody doesn’t meet a deadline, they want to suspend the rules and introduce their bill, whatever it was,” he added.

The House made substantial modifications to the Senate bill, though, including removing a provision that said voters would not be able to “amend or repeal the constitutional guarantee that the right of any person to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or organization.” The lower chamber also inserted a prohibition on using ballot initiatives to amend Mississippi’s highly restrictive abortion laws, which polls show most voters oppose.

Under the old ballot initiative system, voters needed to gather at least 106,000 verified signatures from residents to put an issue on the ballot. The Senate’s original proposal to restore ballot initiatives would have raised that requirement to around 240,000, but the House’s amendments lowered that requirement back to about 100,000.

Both chambers’ versions would bar any constitutional amendments through ballot initiatives.

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