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Senate Offers Its Proposed Legislation to Rectify State’s Ballot Initiative Process

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

FILE – Mississippi state Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, speaks during a debate at the state Capitol on Feb. 7, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. On Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann named Parker as the new chairman of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, which will give Parker influence over creating a new initiative process for Mississippi. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

  • Both chambers have now offered proposals this session to reinstate Mississippi’s ballot initiative process. However, they remain at odds over specific provisions.

Passing out of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency Committee last Wednesday, SB 2770 and the companion SCR 527 would restore a ballot initiative process for the state of Mississippi.

The Senate resolution is required since the initiative process must be voted in a statewide election before any change to the state constitution can go into effect.

According to Senator David Parker (R), chairman of the committee, there were changes to this year’s proposal by the chamber. He said he has spent the last several months looking into the issue and considering how other states approach a ballot initiative process.

The House of Representatives passed an initiative process bill earlier in the session, which Parker called “very limited,” in terms of the implementation of the statutory changes.

READ MORE: Mississippi House passes resolution to restore ballot initiative

Provisions included in the Senate bill call for each proposed initiative to be for a single subject and must identify the source of the revenue in order to obtain signatures. Initiatives must not take money from the Capitol Expense fund or Rainy Day fund. A fiscal report is to be conducted by the Legislative Budget Office (LBO) on a proposed initiative and a 50-word fiscal analysis is to appear on the ballot.

The Senate proposal requires that potential initiatives be filed 90 days before the start of the Legislative session and the Attorney General is to submit a statement of approval. Only two initiatives would be allowed per ballot and they cannot change or amend the state constitution.

Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill does not allow for a Legislative alternative. However, like the House bill, no initiative can amend laws on abortion.

Several provisions to the Senate’s proposal are new to the initiative process including single subject requirements, LBO fiscal report, the AG statement of approval, ballot fiscal analysis, designation of volunteers and paid circulators, and a 60% threshold of all votes required for passage.

An individual attempting to place an initiative on the ballot must be at least 18 years old, a registered voter in Mississippi, a legal resident, and should sign an affidavit that all signatures were obtained within the parameters of the law.

“I don’t think it should be an easy process,” said Senator Parker.

Parker said 26 states currently allow for a ballot initiative process for voters. Of those states, sixteen have a “single subject” provision.

The Senate bill requires 10 percent of the total qualified electors of the state as of the date of the last presidential election. Based on the 2020 presidential election, total registered voters in Mississippi came to 1,991,502, meaning the signatures required to have an initiative placed on the ballot would be just under 200,000.

During the committee hearing, Senator Kevin Blackwell (R) questioned whether that number was too low. Parker indicated that if he proposed a friendly amendment to increase the percentage that it would be considered.

“I think this bill is a much better bill and a more open bill than the one that passed the House,” said Senator David Blount (D).

However, Blount disagreed with Blackwell’s sentiment that 200,000 signatures was too low. According to the previous initiative process, that number is double the current requirement.

Senator Blount asked that lawmakers consider a signature requirement that is closer to what has been used in prior years. He pushed for that number to be based on actual voting tallies and not registered voters, a number Blount says is often inflated.

The House proposal called for at least 8 percent of the total qualified electors of the state from the last gubernatorial election, making the voter signature threshold roughly 166,000.

Senator Blount also disagreed with the new requirement to increase the necessary voting approval for passage to 60 percent.

“I would ask you to consider doing what we do here in the Legislature in passing general law with a 50 percent vote, passing revenue with a 60 percent vote,” said Blount.

In his response, Senator Parker said the number to certify an initiative has increased over the last 100 years. He said that increase is linked to the public’s ability to be informed about issues. Parker added that the arduous process to pass legislation is important, and that should be applied to this process for the public.

“I definitely want to make sure we have a threshold there that is reflective of the trends of communication of the day,” said Parker, adding that he would continue to look at the 60 percent provision.

Senator Parker said the proposal to name the funds that could be required if an initiative were to pass is new, explaining that the state has spent years building up the Rainy Day fund and does not believe any measure constitutes enough of an emergency to pull from those accounts. The fiscal analysis by LBO is also a new requirement to analyze the fiscal impact.

Senator Blount reiterated in committee that the people of Mississippi should have autonomy to decide what subjects can be on the ballot. He said it is his personal position that they should not be limited as to what subject matter they hoped to address.

The ballot initiative process was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court when a majority ruled in favor of Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s challenge of Initiative 65 – the Medical Marijuana Initiative. The Court found that the certification process was ineffective because it listed the state as having five congressional districts when the state currently only has four.

Many lawmakers have argued that the initiative process should only be changed in the state constitution to address the appropriate congressional districts, not be amended to shift vote totals or add other provisions or restrictions.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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