Initiative law

CATEGORY: EDT Editorials


Initiative law

should gear

to grassroots

The Legislature acted wisely in overriding Gov. Kirk Fordice’s veto of a bill that would help protect the integrity of the state’s initiative process.

The law will prohibit per-signature payments to petitition gatherers, limit petitioners to registered Mississippi voters, and keep petitions at least 150 feet from polling places.

Mississippi’s three-year-old initiative and referendum law was initially advertised as a way for grassroots opinion to find concrete expression by getting constitutional issues that had been rejected or ignored by the Legislature on the statewide ballot for a vote.

From the perspective of I&R proponents, Mississippi’s law leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, the number of signatures required to get an issue on the ballot is high. It’s 10 percent of the last gubernatorial election turnout, or 98,000. But with this and other obstacles, one issue term limits for public officials has already made it to the ballot, and voters rejected the proposal. Petitions are circulating on others, and at least a couple stand a fair chance of coming to a vote.

Since ours is and always has been a representative form of government, not a direct democracy, it ought to take extraordinary public sentiment to circumvent the time-tested method of elected representatives making legislative decisions.

Yet I&R in Mississippi has produced some results clearly contradictory to its grassroots origins. A small cottage industry has emerged that will organize petition drives and pay people to gather signatures. This has produced fleets of paid workers with a built-in incentive to distort what petititions is about: they often get paid according to the number of signatures they collect. Knowledgeable Mississippians have been confronted by petition-bearers who completely misrepresented the issue. There’s no guarantee, of course, that misrepresentation won’t occur even as pay-per-signature petitioning is outlawed. But the likelihood would decrease.

The law will still allow payment to workers who gather signatures; they just couldn’t be paid on the number of signatures they collect. Those who argue that petitioners should be free to use private enterprise-style sales incentives offer a false analogy. Changing the constitution isn’t, or shouldn’t be, in the same category with selling a product.

A sidelight to debate on this bill was an editorial in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that laid the I&R revision and defeat of term limits last year at the feet of House Speaker Tim Ford, whom the editorial attacked with great ferocity. Its portrayal of Ford as a legislative tyrant was almost laughably out of proportion, particularly given the history of his predecessors. It is interesting, however, that those who oppose changing the I&R law to make it more reflective of grassroots Mississippi sentiment would turn to the nation’s most elite newspaper for support. That may say something about who represents the people’s wishes on this issue.

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