By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Saying that Mississippians should write the laws that govern the state, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Friday to override Gov. Kirk Fordice’s veto of a bill to tighten the state’s initiative process.

On Thursday, Fordice vetoed the bill, saying it put too many restrictions on the process that allows voters to bypass the Legislature and gather petitions to have issues placed on the ballot. But the House wasted little time on Friday, voting 98-22 to override the governor’s veto. A two-thirds majority (or 81 votes) was all that was needed for the override. The Senate is expected to try to override next week.

The vote on the override produced some of the most stirring debate of the nearly completed session.

Rep. Greg Davis, I-Southaven, said the bill is designed to prevent the initiative process from being turned into an instrument of the far left or the far right.

“They are both motivated by the same shameful priorities: Money, power and greed,” Davis said. He added, they “conspire to manipulate our most sacred political and legal document (the state Constitution) for the purpose of their selfish gain.”

Davis, who was interrupted more than once by applause, which is now allowed during debate, said, “I strongly believed when (the initiative process) was passed, which I supported, we passed it for Mississippians.”

No per-signature payments

The bill would prohibit people who are not registered voters of Mississippi from working to gather signatures to have an issue placed on the ballot.

The bill also would require petition-gatherers to be located at least 150 feet from polling places (just as candidates are required to be) and would require the workers to be truthful. In one of the most controversial aspects of the bill, it would prohibit people from being paid on a per-signature basis. They still could be paid by other means – such as by the hour.

Opponents of the bill, such as Gov. Fordice, argued that the bill would make it more difficult to gather petitions for the initiative process.

“The best way to pay someone is for productivity,” said Rep. Phil Bryant, R-Brandon, referring to paying people for each signature they gather.

Bryant also pointed out that non-Mississippians often work on campaigns of political candidates. If non-Mississippians are not allowed to work on initiative efforts, they should not be able to work for candidates either, he said.

Rep. Ken Stribling, R-Jackson, said, “You should not add any more hoops for the people to have to jump through (in the initiative process.)”

But Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, speaking as “Citizen McCoy” and not as a state representative, told of encountering many petition-gatherers at the Wal-Mart in Booneville when he made trips there from his Prentiss County farm.

“I listened to blatant misrepresentation of the facts,” McCoy said of his encounters with the petition-gatherers who were mostly from out-of-state. “Our laws and Constitution should be changed based on thoughtful consideration of the facts.”

Response to term limits

At a news conference where Fordice vetoed the bill, he said the Legislature passed the bill because term limits was the first initiative proposal to make the ballot. Legislators, he said, were vehemently against the term limits proposal that was defeated.

Fordice said Mississippi’s initiative process already is one of the most difficult in the nation for citizens to use.

Many legislators who voted for the bill agreed that Mississippi’s initiative process is difficult to use. But they said the way to fix that is to lower the number of signatures required to get an issue on the ballot. It currently takes 98,000 signatures.

“I am not for people being paid to gather signatures by the head. It cheapens the process,” said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston. “I am for lowering the threshold of the number of signatures required.”

All House members from Northeast Mississippi voted to override the veto.

Click video to hear audio