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GOP leaders look to curtail ballot initiatives after red state voters opt for legal weed, expanded Medicaid

·Senior Writer
·8 min read
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Republican officials in Mississippi and Missouri have overturned ballot initiatives passed by voters in last year’s elections, a move Democrats are comparing to the refusal of some GOP leaders to accept the legitimacy of the presidential results.

In November, nearly 60 percent of Mississippi voters said yes to Ballot Initiative 65, opting to establish a medical marijuana program through an amendment to the state constitution. In a country where the number of states legalizing weed for even recreational use continues to grow, the proposal would allow possession of up to 2.5 ounces of the drug for patients with a qualifying condition, including cancer, Parkinson's disease and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Last Friday, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the preference of more than 766,000 people on a technicality. The decision came as the result of a lawsuit filed by Mary Hawkins Butler, the GOP mayor of Madison, Miss., and hinged on the wording of the ballot initiative process established in the 1990s.

Medical marijuana. (Getty Images)
Medical marijuana. (Getty Images)

Under those guidelines, petitioners needed to gather one-fifth of their signatures from each of the state's five congressional districts. However, as of 2000, Mississippi has only four districts, although supporters of medical marijuana gathered signatures according to the old map as a precaution, at the advice of the state attorney general’s office.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler reacts after attending arguments before the Mississippi Supreme Court on her lawsuit that challenges the state's initiative process and seeks to overturn a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved in November 2020, on April 14, 2021 in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Madison, Miss., Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler on April 14, after attending arguments before the Mississippi Supreme Court on her lawsuit that sought to overturn a medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

“Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress,” Justice Josiah Coleman, who was endorsed by the Mississippi Republican Party prior to his reelection last year, wrote for the majority in the 6-3 ruling. “To work in today’s reality, it will need amending — something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.”

Under the ruling, ballot initiatives have been put on pause until new legislation is passed that does not specify five districts. It is unclear what will happen to ballot initiatives previously passed under the same rules, including a 2011 measure that required voter ID.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi,” said Ken Newburger, executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association. “Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end.”

In his dissent, Justice James Maxwell wrote that the majority opinion “confidently and correctly points out” that the Supreme Court cannot amend the state constitution but that “the majority does just that — stepping completely outside of Mississippi law — to employ an interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi’s citizen initiative process.”

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph, center, questions attorney Justin Matheny of the Mississippi attorney general’s office, during arguments over a lawsuit that challenges the state's initiative process and seeks to overturn a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved in November, Wednesday, April 14, 2021 in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Attorney Justin Matheny of the Mississippi attorney general’s office argues before the state Supreme Court on April 14 in the medical marijuana case. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The medical marijuana initiative had been opposed by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, and the state Supreme Court’s gutting of the process comes as activists hope to put measures on both early voting and expanded Medicaid access on future ballots. A bill establishing medical marijuana is being considered in the state Legislature but is unlikely to pass until next year at the earliest.

Meanwhile, a ballot initiative expanding Medicaid was rejected by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson last week after that state's GOP-controlled Legislature failed to provide funding for the program in the budget. In August, 53 percent of Missouri voters voted yes on Amendment 2, which would have provided health insurance to 230,000 low-income residents and help out struggling rural hospitals.

On Thursday, Parson — who had opposed the initiative — said he would not be expanding the program due to its costs not being covered. Amendment 2 did not specify where funding for the new coverage would come from, and the Legislature opted not to provide it, crippling the expansion.

“Without a revenue source or funding authority from the General Assembly, we are unable to proceed with the expansion at this time and must withdraw our State Plan Amendments to ensure Missouri’s existing MO HealthNet program remains solvent,” Parson said on Thursday.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers the State of the State address in Jan. 2021, as Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, right, listens in Jefferson City, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers the State of the State address in January. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

A dozen states are dealing with a “Medicaid gap” in which Republican governments chose not to use the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion provision, which provides federal funds to help low-income Americans get health care. That leaves a group who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidies (which kick in for individuals making about $18,000 a year) to help pay for their insurance. With their governments failing to move on the issue, activists in a number of traditionally conservative states found success turning to ballot initiatives to utilize the program.

Following the passage of Amendment 2, Parson had asked the Legislature for $130 million to fund the Medicaid expansion, with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the tab ($1.6 billion). A 2020 study from Washington University in St. Louis found that passing the measure could “save the state $39 million in the first year and $932 million by 2024.” Under the American Rescue Plan, Missouri would have received an additional $1.1 billion over the next two years if it had expanded the program.

Democrats in the state have promised lawsuits, and Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver compared the move to the current GOP trend of tightening voter restrictions while following former President Donald Trump’s lead in baselessly asserting that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Last week, House Republicans ousted Rep. Liz Cheney from a party leadership role after she pushed back against Trump’s continued assertions of fraud. An April CNN poll found a majority of Republicans do not believe Joe Biden was the legitimate winner.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., walks through Statuary Hall in the Capitol in 2019. ( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., in the Capitol in 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

“Democracy is in danger in America,” Cleaver said in a statement following Parson’s announcement. “Whether it is Congressional Republicans lying about the fair and legitimate election of President Biden, leading to the worst attack on our nation’s Capitol in history, or state legislators rejecting a fair and legitimate ballot initiative approved by Missouri voters, these actions only further deteriorate our democratic institutions.

“Some in the GOP have dangerously started down the slippery slope of deciding which laws they want to follow and which ones they do not; which voters they want to hear from and which ones they do not,” added Cleaver.

While Republicans in a number of states have made voting more difficult, some are also looking to curtail the use of ballot initiatives. Idaho was one of the traditionally red states that have voted to expand Medicaid, with 60 percent of voters approving Proposition 2 in November 2018. After surviving court challenges questioning its legitimacy, the new law went into effect last year, resulting in the enrollment of tens of thousands of low-income Idaho residents into Medicaid who didn’t previously have access.

The response to Proposition 2’s success by Idaho Republicans was to make it more difficult to get an initiative on the ballot in the first place. Under the previous rules, organizers needed signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 state legislative districts, but a new law requires 6 percent of registered voters to be signed on from all 35 Idaho districts.

A voter fills out a ballot at the Boise Senior Center during the primary election in Boise, Idaho in 2016. (Otto Kitsinger/AP)
A voter fills out a ballot during the Idaho primary in 2016. (Otto Kitsinger/AP)

Supporters of the raised threshold say it was established to ensure that those gathering signatures can’t ignore rural areas. The previous standards were put in place in 2013 after voters overturned a controversial education bill passed by the Republican Legislature.

“Idaho has an important interest in ensuring that our ballots are not cluttered with initiatives that have not demonstrated sufficient grassroots support,” wrote Republican Gov. Brad Little last month on his decision to sign the bill that makes it harder to get initiatives on the ballot. “Under current law, an initiative can qualify for the ballot after collecting voter signatures in only a few of Idaho’s more populated, urban areas.”

Even if activists were able to get an initiative on the ballot based solely on signatures from Idaho’s urban areas, it would still need to be approved by a majority of voters in a state where Trump won 64 percent in 2020.

The new ballot law has been challenged in court, including by the organization that spearheaded the Medicaid expansion effort. Activists in the state recently started collecting signatures with the goal of getting another issue on the 2022 ballot: Legalizing medical marijuana.

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