HED: House gives OK to petition limitations
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Mississippi House wasted little time Friday approving a proposal to give citizens a chance to exclude out-of-state residents from the initiative process.
If approved by two-thirds of the Senate, the House resolution would bring the matter to a November election.
Voters then would decide if a constitutional amendment should prohibit out-of-state voters from gathering signatures needed to force initiative elections in Mississippi.
If successful, the legislation might render invalid a current effort to gather enough signatures to place a proposal on the 1999 ballot to limit legislators to two consecutive terms.
On Friday, the proposal to restrict the signature gatherers to registered voters of Mississippi passed the House, 97-21. It needed 79 votes in the House to reach the two-thirds threshold required for passage.
But passage of the proposal almost was assured before the House debated it Friday. Eighty-five of the 122 members had signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation. Debate on the proposal lasted about 15 minutes.
Those voting against the proposal were 19 of the House’s 36 Republicans. One Democrat and an independent also voted against the plan.
The initiative process allows voters to change the state Constitution without first obtaining legislative approval.
Under the process, initiative sponsors first must obtain a required number of signatures – 98,336 – and then the issue must be approved by voters. It then becomes part of the state Constitution.
Some have contended initiative sponsors use out-of-state professional signature gatherers who care nothing about Mississippi’s political system.
Rep. Ed Perry, D-Oxford, who was House Constitution Committee chairman in 1992 when the Legislature approved the initiative process, said it always was the intent to allow only Mississippians to participate in the process.
“What’s happening is these (initiative) efforts are not being done by Mississippians for Mississippi’s interest,” Perry said. “I believe the intent from the very beginning was, if this is a Mississippi matter, it ought to be a qualified elector – a voter – to circulate the petition.”
But Rep. Ken Stribling, R-Jackson, said the real intent of the proposal is to make it more difficult for citizens to use the initiative process.
“I hope voters see what this is all about,” Stribling said. “It is an attempt to make an already difficult (initiative) process even more difficult to use. It is an attempt to stifle the people’s right to petition via initiative.”
Stribling offered an amendment to the proposal to lower the number of signatures needed to get an initiative proposal on the ballot.
The proposal was defeated on a voice vote.
Stribling tried unsuccessfully to muster enough support to demand a roll call.
Asked after the vote if he believed the proposal was an effort to stop the term limits initiative, Stribling said,”I think (that) is part of it, but I believe it is bigger than just term limits.”
More than term limits
Mark Garriga, Gov. Kirk Fordice’s chief of staff, agreed.
“The Legislature is terrified of two things – the initiative process and term limits,” Garriga said. “Now with this one act, they are going to try to kill them both.”
A term limits group, backed by U.S. Term Limits of Washington, D.C., has been working since last summer to gather enough signatures to put the term limits proposal on the 1999 ballot.
Term limits proponents won a judgment last summer from U.S. District Judge Tom Lee, who ruled unconstitutional a law passed in 1995 by the Legislature to limit petition gatherers to registered voters.
Garriga predicted the current proposal – even if approved by the citizens of the state – would be overturned by a federal judge.
On the floor of the House Friday, Perry was asked why a federal judge might accept the constitutional amendment to limit petition gatherers to registered voters when he rejected the law doing the same thing.
Perry said there have been court decisions indicating the federal courts would be more likely to accept a constitutional amendment.
He said the courts have ruled that “the people of the states have the right” through the ballot box to limit how the initiative process is carried out.
While Stribling was saying the proposal to limit petition gatherers to registered voters would make the initiative process harder to use, Perry said all he wanted to do was “give the people of the state the opportunity to make a decision on this issue.”