BOBBY HARRISON: Initiative hangs on judicial decision about lost district

JACKSON – Mississippians may not know they have an initiative process to allow them to bypass the Legislature and place an issue on the ballot for voters to decide.
They might not know because it is so seldom used. The process was approved by voters in 1992. Yet, in all that time, there has not been one single successful effort to amend the Constitution via the initiative.
Incredibly, only twice have initiative sponsors garnered the required number of signatures to get an issue placed on the ballot. Those proposals dealt with term limits for politicians. In both instances, voters rejected the initiatives.
Some states have initiatives – several of them – on the ballot every time they vote. Last year California voters approved an initiative to prohibit gays from marrying. Initiative proposals in Oregon and Washington legalized assisted suicides and in California and other states marijuana for medical purposes have been legalized via the initiative route.
In 1992, when legislators crafted Mississippi’s initiative law they purposefully made it burdensome. If someone plans to amend the Mississippi Constitution by bypassing the Legislature, that very Legislature said the process would be difficult and there would be a bunch of hoops to jump through.
Because the process is so difficult, it is seldom attempted. But there are now at least two initiatives being considered that could garner some attention and could be successful even under Mississippi’s burdensome process.
One would require people to display a government-issued photo identification before voting. That initiative already has been filed by its sponsor – state Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall. Fillingane has a year from this past February to garner the required number of signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
Another initiative that could be filed would prevent the government from taking private land for economic development purposes.
For various reasons, both proposals have been unsuccessful in the legislative process. But both of those proposals have a lot of public support, and perhaps sponsors could overcome the burdensome process to get the issues placed on the ballot.
But there are those who would contend that Mississippi no longer has an initiative process.
To place an initiative on the ballot, the Constitution requires sponsors to obtain signatures equaling 12 percent of the voters from the last gubernatorial election. The Constitution requires one-fifth of the signatures of registered voters to be obtained from each of the congressional districts.
The only problem is Mississippi has four congressional districts. It is a mathematical impossibility to gather one-fifth of the signatures equally from four districts.
What is an initiative sponsor to do?
In 1992, Mississippi had five districts. But because of population shifts throughout the United States, Mississippi lost a congressional district as a result of the 2000 Census.
Attorney General Jim Hood’s office has said that the old congressional districts should be used in gathering the signatures.
But the issue will ultimately be decided in court. And in court, there will be those who argue that until the law is changed to require one-fourth of the signatures to come from each of the current congressional districts that Mississippi has no initiative process.
Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at bharrison@djournal.com or at (601) 353-3119.

 

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