Both houses of the Mississippi Legislature now have passed differing versions of a bill that would help neutralize the power of special interests in our state’s initiative process.
Initiative is the way voters can place constitutional issues like gubernatorial term limits on a statewide ballot without first going through the Legislature. Initiative, usually linked with the word referendum because that is the culmination of the process, begins with the gathering of signatures on petitions. A direct initiative for a constitutional amendment (the process applies only to constitutional amendments) requires valid voter signatures equaling 12 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election.
The Senate passed a bill this week that would turn the initiative process back to the people especially people without stacks of money to spend. It would prohibit the practice of paying people for each signature gathered on petitions. It would be better still if paying people to gather the signatures were forbidden, but that’s probably not politically feasible. The House earlier passed a slightly different bill dealing with the same issue. The two chambers must reconcile their differences or the bill dies.
Removing the per-signature financial incentive would restore the integrity of political passion and commitment to issues. It would not slam voters’ intelligence or integrity, as some claim. It would level the political playing field and help minimize the influence of money regardless of the source or the issue backed by those with the cash to spend.
Those who believe that it’s necessary to pay people to gather signatures whether by the hour or per signature underestimate the political will of Mississippians. Voters have been making their collective will known to legislators and other elected officials for almost 180 years. The initiative and referendum process itself came about because people exerted relentless pressure on the Legislature to place an initiative and referendum constitutional amendment on the ballot. The Legislature agreed, and it passed.
Money plays too much a part in how we’re governed. Ideas and authentic debate about them often take a back seat to who can raise and spend the most money. The initiative and referendum process government directly from the people needs to be about the people’s ideas rather than the money of special interests.