No need to call a special session if lawmakers are called to only address the initiative process.
Since the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the state’s initiative process was null and void in its current form, much has been said and written as to the need for Governor Tate Reeves to call a special session of the Legislature to “give the people back their voice.”
The Legislature has known there was an issue with the initiative process in Mississippi for nearly 20 years, and yet, they have done nothing about it. The mess we are currently in is on them. Democrats held the majority when Congressional Districts changed following the 2000 Census and Republicans have had control of both chambers now for a decade. This is just a failure to lead by all.
It is understandable to want to blame the Justices who ruled on the merits of the Initiative 65 challenge as if to say they “don’t want the people to be heard” or that they somehow sought to dismiss the vote of Mississippians who supported a medical marijuana program, but that misses the mark entirely. The ruling was not about medical marijuana; it was about a flawed process the Legislature has failed to offer voters an option to fix for nearly two decades.
With that understanding, is there a need to call a special session now to address the initiative process? The answer is no, at least not as a standalone issue in a special session call by the Governor.
The reason is simple: As Governor Reeves told me in an interview last week, this change would take a 2/3 vote of the Legislature and a vote of the people to amend the constitution. Any legislative solution on the initiative process would need to be placed on the next statewide General Election ballot for voters to approve as it would amend the state constitution, and there is not a scheduled statewide General Election until November 2022.
Add in the fact that it would cost approximately $35,000 per day and that quickly adds up to real money when a solution has not been put forward between the two chambers.
Heck, I am old enough to remember when calling a special session for non-economic development projects that were bringing jobs and significant investment to the state was frowned upon by budget hawks and conservative think tanks. But I digress.
If the Governor were to call a special session to address the medical marijuana program (which I think he should given the work the Mississippi Department of Health has already performed in preparation for the August launch and the expectation of voters), adding the initiative process to the call would not be a heavy lift. It would resolve an issue lawmakers most certainly want off of their plate before it clouds the 2022 session’s other pending matters, such as a plan to phase out the state’s income tax.
One thing it appears most legislators and citizens agree on: The state constitution is a guide on which all other state statutes are based. It is not a policy document or a set of laws to be changed or amended on the whim of the masses. Such regulations and laws surrounding specific products and services are best codified in statute whereby they can be more readily adjusted to fit the times in which we live. The same is true of the U.S. Constitution. As such, Sec. 273 (2) should remain and allow the Legislature to offer state constitutional amendments through the vote of the people.
However, the initiative process should not amend the state constitution, meaning Sec. 273 (3) and the subsections that follow should be reformed to allow citizens to put forward legislation, not constitutional amendments, that their elected representatives in the Mississippi Legislature should thereby codify into law as passed by a supermajority of voters and that cannot be repealed without a supermajority of a future legislative body or another vote of the people. That threshold in the Legislature should be a very high bar, perhaps even 3/4ths or higher.
In addition, disclosures of who is funding an initiative and to what level should be made at the outset of the process and should be reported in detail through the Secretary of State’s office as the initiative backers gain signatures as well as periodically as it moves toward appearing on the ballot. Mississippians deserve to know exactly who is pushing for what laws and why.
The Legislature should retain the ability to offer an alternative to any initiative that is certified to appear on the ballot, similar to what is offered in Sec. 273 (7). Often times, citizen or special interest initiatives do not take into account the effect it may have on the state budget or other aspects of the operation of local and state government, and the Legislature must be able to address those conflicts through an alternative if lawmakers determine the need.
Any initiative reform should also be required to outline in detail its effect on state and local government budgets, highlighting to what level taxpayers will be impacted should the initiative be adopted. Sec. 273 (4) attempts to do just that but it should be strengthened, outlining any one time monies to be used from other sources, such as from the federal government, along with long-term projections. Think of this as a fiscal note, which is already done within the Legislature on pending legislation. Having an accounting like this would paint a better picture for voters, allowing them to see what the new law the initiative proposed would cost them in real terms.
Better yet, as Douglas Carswell noted in a Clarion Ledger op-ed, have initiatives that spend money be constrained to tax neutral.
And lastly, the language in the initiative process should be amended so that if Mississippi loses or gains a Congressional seat this situation does not happen again. Secretary of State Michael Watson’s suggestion that the words “one-fifth (1/5)” be changed to “its pro-rata share” in Sec. 273 (3) seems to make the most logical sense so as to maintain the population spread intended to gauge public interest throughout the state for a specific issue.
As I said, this is not a heavy lift. These changes would give the people a voice when their elected representatives in the Legislature refuse to act on popular policy issues while maintaining the integrity and purpose of the state constitution. It would provide a more detailed paper trail and set forth a better standard both in terms of knowing who is behind the initiative and what impact it will have on taxpayers.
All that is needed now is for such a plan to be brought before the voters in November 2022, whether it be done in a special session or in January. Either way, the Legislature can no longer kick this can down the road.