- Associated Press - Thursday, October 29, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - If Mississippi voters are going to consider removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, 2016 would be a good time to do it, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said Thursday.

Bryant, seeking a second term next week, answered reporters’ flag questions after he spoke at Hobnob, a casual gathering of businesspeople sponsored by the state chamber of commerce.

He said he’s not pushing for change, but he recognizes the flag is getting lots of debate. Groups that support and oppose the flag are proposing initiatives that would force the issue to a statewide vote if they gather enough signatures on petitions. But, because Mississippi’s initiative law is complex, the soonest one of those proposals could land on a statewide ballot is 2018.

The Legislature, however, could set an election on the issue whenever it wants.

“I’d like to see the Legislature put it on the ballot in the presidential year, for a number of reasons,” Bryant said. “That’s the largest voter turnout that we have in Mississippi.”

He said that would give plenty of people a chance to express a preference on a symbol for the state. Although there’s been plenty of discussion on social media about other flag proposals, no alternative design has been formally offered.

The University of Mississippi and Bryant’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, removed the flag from campus this week because of the Confederate symbol that many see as divisive. Several Mississippi cities and counties have also furled the state flag in recent months.

Bryant’s Democratic challenger, Robert Gray, has said the state flag is like a warning label for people to stay away from Mississippi.

The public display of Confederate symbols has received widespread debate in the U.S. since mid-June, when nine black worshippers were massacred at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Police said the attack was racially motivated. The white man charged in the killings had previously posed with a Confederate battle flag in photos posted online.

Since 1894, the Mississippi flag has prominently included the Confederate emblem - a blue X dotted with 13 white stars, over a red field.

The state Supreme Court found in 2000 that the flag design had not been carried forward when Mississippi laws were updated in 1906.

After contentious public hearings in the fall of 2000, legislators opted not to set a flag design themselves. Instead, they set a statewide election for people to choose between the 1894 design and an alternative that would have replaced the Confederate emblem with 20 white stars on a blue field, to represent Mississippi’s status as the 20th state. Critics called the alternative design a “pizza flag.”

Voters decided by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in the 2001 election to keep the 1894 flag.

Bryant said Thursday that he’s not advocating changing the flag, but after 14 years, it might be time to let people vote again.

“If the pizza flag is on there, I’m certainly not going to vote for that,” Bryant said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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