JACKSON – On the same day that Gov. Kirk Fordice vetoed a bill tightening up the initiative process, the Wall Street Journal published a blistering editorial criticizing Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, for pushing the issue through the Mississippi House of Representatives.
The editorial said Ford used his “exercise of absolute power over legislators” to have the initiative bill passed.
“He did not ask me to vote for or against it,” said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who voted against the bill on final passage. “I am not sure how he voted. He sure didn’t twist anybody’s arm.”
Fordice is hoping to “twist some arms” to get legislators to vote to uphold his veto.
In vetoing the bill Thursday, Fordice said, “The circulation of petitions and the gathering of signatures is a right intimately tied to our right to freedom of speech. This is a power that is reserved to our people, should not be restricted or impaired, and a right that should be held sacred.”
Trying to clear up loopholes
Supporters of the bill, which Fordice vetoed and that the Wall Street Journal is so interested in, say it attempts to “clear up some of the loopholes.” In the initiative process, which has been in effect in the state since 1993, people have the right to gather petitions to have an issue placed on the ballot.
The bill would:
n Prohibit petition-gathers from being paid for each signature they gather. They still could be paid, but not on a per-signature basis.
n Prohibit petition-gathers from locating within 150 feet of a polling place.
n Prohibit out-of-state people from working on the petitions. The term limits proposal, which voters defeated in November, was at least partially led by out-of-state interests.
n Allow people to remove their names from the petitions if they change their mind.
n Require petition-gathers to be accurate in the information they present about the initiative proposal.
Rep. Herb Frierson, D-Poplarville, said he is in favor of the bill. “Mississippi has been subjected to outside influences for too long.”
Ford said the bill is not designed to limit the rights of Mississippians to gather petitions to have issues placed on the ballot.
“It (initiative process) was designed to be a grass-roots efforts of our citizens, not for citizens from out of state,” Ford said.
But Fordice said the bill is unconstitutional because the initiative section in the state Constitution prohibits the Legislature from making any changes in the law. He also said the U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled that petition supporters have the right to pay people for each signature they gather.
Editorial shocks most at Capitol
Fordice’s position on the bill is almost identical to that taken by the Wall Street Journal in a Thursday editorial, which the governor proudly displayed at the news conference announcing his veto. The Wall Street Journal even knew he was scheduled to veto the bill Thursday.
“If legislators now, in a desire to maintain their power, use suspect means to make it harder to participate in the democratic process, it will be properly seen as a step backward in the state’s development,” the editorial said.
The editorial went on to attack Ford in such a manner as to leave most people at the state Capitol shocked.
The editorial referred to Ford as the “most autocratic legislative leader in the country.” It accused him of storming into committee rooms and taking over the meeting.
“Speaker Tim Ford has been dubbed The Sun King” for his exercise of absolute power over legislators,” the editorial said.
“He has never taken over my committee even, though sometimes I wish someone would,” said Rep. Tim Holland, D-Plantersville, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
No other member interviewed could recall Ford taking over a committee meeting.
“I don’t know why certain portions of the press is so critical of the speaker,” said Rep. David Gibbs, D-West Point. “I don’t think he is a bad person. I don’t think people who love the governor should have to hate the speaker or the lieutenant governor.”
For his part, Ford said, “I was sort of dumbfounded by the editorial because it was so outlandish. My members are laughing about it. I don’t think they view me that way.”
The editorial is not expected to have any impact on the Legislature’s efforts to override the Fordice veto. Ford said the House could override it as early as today.
Based on the past votes, Fordice may have a difficult time on the bill. The Legislature needs two-third to override a gubernatorial veto. On final passage in the House, the bill was approved 100-21 and on final passage in the Senate it passed 37-12.