Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Gov. Phil Bryant expressed support for placing a referendum on whether to change Mississippi’s embattled state flag on the 2016 presidential ballot.
He said voting during a presidential year would ensure a large turnout.
“The more people vote, the better off we will be,” said Bryant to members of the media after his speech Thursday at the Mississippi Coliseum at the annual Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob political speaking.
The Republican governor remained adamant that the flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem as part of its design, should not be changed by the Legislature without a vote of the people.
When asked if he would support a new flag design if put before the people, Bryant said he could not answer that question without knowing the choices.
“It is not so much how I want to vote, but what the people of Mississippi want,” he said.
The issue of the state flag has intensified this year after the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds after a mass shooting at an African American church there that appeared to be racially motivated.
After that shooting, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, endorsed a change in the Mississippi flag. But at the time, both Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, said Mississippians had spoken on the issue – in a 2001 referendum to keep the current flag.
Bryant predicted there would be “a robust” debate of the issue during the 2016 legislative session.
The issue has re-emerged in recent days as the state flag was removed from both the University of Mississippi – after a vote taken by student leaders – and the University of Southern Mississippi after protests. The state’s three historically black universities previously stopped displaying the state flag, as has several school districts and municipalities.
Bryant was critical of the universities’ decisions to stop displaying the state flag – saying he believed law mandated them to display the flag as long as it was the official flag of Mississippi.
“They can have a difference of opinion, but they are publicly supported institutions,” Bryant said. “This flag was chosen by the people through a referendum.”
There are currently competing efforts to garner enough signatures to place on the ballot proposals to incorporate the state flag in the Constitution and to place in the Constitution a new flag design.
When asked would he rather have an initiative make the ballot that would incorporate language in the Constitution or would he rather the Legislature just place it on the ballot, the governor said he did not have a preference.
If the Legislature passed a bill to place the flag issue on the ballot, it would be easier to change the outcome in later years. To change the Constitution requires either a citizen-sponsored initiative or a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and then approval by the voters.