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Voter initiative would be hard to use under bills moving in Legislature

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Voter initiative would be hard to use under bills moving in Legislature

Feb 28, 2024 | 1:08 pm ET
By Bobby Harrison
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Voter initiative would be hard to use under bills moving in Legislature
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Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

If Mississippians are allowed to vote to enact a new initiative process to allow citizens to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot, it is likely to be much more restrictive than the process that was deemed invalid in 2021 by the state Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee passed a proposal to restore voters’ initiative rights. But the Committee proposal is significantly more restrictive than the one first enacted in the early 1990s and used until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. The Senate AET proposal would require double the number of voters’ signatures to put something on the ballot, and limit the issues that voters can take up.

The AET Committee measure most likely will be taken up in the coming weeks by the full Senate.

Earlier this session the House passed a proposal, now pending in the Senate, that also is more restrictive than the old process. If the Legislature does pass a proposal to finally renew the initiative, it still must be approved by the voters before it will be valid. But voters will have to accept or reject what the Legislature offers. They cannot change it.

Senate AET Chairman David Parker, R-Southaven, said any procedure allowing citizens to bypass the Legislature and change the state’s laws should be “onerous” and safeguards should be taken to limit out-of-state influence on the process.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, pointed out that under the old process a limited number of initiatives garnered the necessary signatures needed to make the ballot. Blount said the fear that the process would be overly influenced by out-of-state interests “is a theory, but we have 30 years of evidence to show what the people of Mississippi did with the initiative process they used to have. And they voted for good things and voted against bad things.” Only three initiatives were approved by votes during those 30 years.

Both the House and Senate proposals prohibit the initiative process from being used to change the state’s near total ban on abortions. In other states, voters have rejected placing restrictions on abortions. Both House and Senate leaders say they do not want out-of-state interests influencing Mississippi’s abortion laws.

The Senate proposal passed out of committee Tuesday would require the signatures equal to 10% of the registered voters from the last presidential election – more than 200,000 signatures of registered voters – to place an issue on the ballot. The House plan would require the signatures of about 166,000. The proposal ruled invalid by the Supreme Court because of a technicality would have required about 100,000 signatures of registered voters.

Parker said the higher signature threshold is needed because technology has made it much easier to gather signatures than it was in the early 1990s.

The Senate bill would not remove the often-criticized provision in the old initiative process that allowed the Legislature to place a competing alternative to the citizen-sponsored initiative on the ballot, causing confusion among voters.

The Senate bill would require sponsors of an initiative to take money from another area of state government if their proposal cost money, Blount said. He said the process would be unworkable for a number of issues, such as expanding Medicaid. For instance, the Legislature is considering a proposal to require medical providers to pay for a portion of the cost of expanding Medicaid. Citizens could not offer such a proposal under the House and Senate initiative plans, Blount said.

In addition, the Senate proposal would require 60% of voters to approve an initiative in order for it to pass. Of the 26 states with initiatives, none have as high of voter threshold to change all general laws.