Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Greenwood Commonwealth. January 16, 2024.

Editorial: State Needs New Initiative Law

The third attempt to get a new ballot initiative procedure into state law has had a bipartisan group of business and political leaders working on its behalf for the past several months.

The group is called Ballot Access Mississippi. According to a recent story in Mississippi Today, the group is contacting influential members of the state Legislature to make sure the topic gets enough attention early in this year’s session so that efforts to settle on a new initiative procedure don’t get killed by Capitol deadlines.

The state constitution gives citizens the right to bypass the Legislature by putting proposals to a referendum. Mississippi established this initiative procedure in 1992, but a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling threw out the process on a technicality because the law called for the signatures to be evenly gathered in the state’s five congressional districts, but the state has had only four districts since 2003.

Efforts to restore the initiative process failed in both 2022 and 2023. One of the disagreements between the House and the Senate was the number of voter signatures required to put a proposal to a referendum. The Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, wants the new law to require more signatures.

Hopefully BAM is making contact with the right people in Jackson, because there really is no valid reason to object to a voter initiative law. Three decades of experience show that the requirements of the law that got invalidated by the state Supreme Court did a pretty good job of keeping the process selective.

In the 29 years that the initiative law was in effect, citizens tried to put 76 issues to a vote of the public. BAM says only eight of them got enough signatures to qualify for a referendum, and of those eight, only three won approval from voters — to require voter ID, to protect property rights from eminent domain and, most recently, to legalize the farming, sale and use of marijuana for specific medical purposes.

The fact that lawmakers could not work through their differences during the past two years may signal that some key legislators think they should be the only people that makes laws for the state. But the experience with medical marijuana disproves that.

When the medical marijuana proposal got on the ballot, few thought it stood a chance of passing. Voters surprised everyone, though, when they approved the proposal by a 3-to-1 margin.

That vote alone said that elected officials sometimes misread their constituents, and in such a situation, an initiative procedure is a good way for the public to decide.

This admittedly presents a risk of the unknown. Would voters approve a referendum to legalize marijuana for recreational use? What if there was a referendum to expand abortion rights beyond what the Legislature desires? Or expanding Medicaid? It could be that some lawmakers are slow-walking a new initiative law because of these concerns.

Another issue is whether initiatives that get approved by voters should be put into the state constitution, as the previous process did; or into the Mississippi Code, which is the state’s list of laws.

That’s a tough one.

It makes more sense to put approved initiatives into the state code, especially when it comes to setting government policy and its attendant regulations. This way also provides an easier path to fix problems that the initiative’s authors might not have foreseen. State laws can be amended by the Legislature; a constitutional amendment can only be changed by another popular referendum.

The downside is that lawmakers could gut or reverse the initiative much easier if its part of the state code rather than part of the constitution.

On balance, that’s probably a risk worth accepting.