Campaign finance reform passes House

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Speaker of the Mississippi House Philip Gunn

Gil Ford Photography

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

Speaker Philip Gunn’s campaign-finance reform legislation on Wednesday became the first substantive bill to pass the House this session.

Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, filed the bill Tuesday. By Wednesday, the House Rules Committee had sent the bill to the full House for a vote.

The bill passed 102 to 13 after more than an hour of debate.

Gunn’s HB 479 requires that credit card expenditures are itemized and prohibits “residential household items,” as well as mortgage, rent or utility payments for businesses, funeral-related expenses, clothing used for winning or keeping public office, automobiles (except campaign-related rentals), tuition and certain club dues.

Also prohibited are payments to family members unless the relatives are providing bona fide services to the campaign, admission to sporting events and travel expenses that are unrelated to the campaign.

Under the bill, candidates would not be able to fund raise during the session and candidates would no longer be permitted to pocket leftover funds. They can donate the money to political action committees and nonprofits, however.

In the past, campaign funds could be pocketed as long as taxes were paid.

The bill also prohibits the leasing of campaign office space for more than fair market value.

Candidates found to be in violation of the law would have to pay a $1,000 fine plus an assessment in the amount of the misappropriated funds. Committees that break the law would be charged a $5,000 fine.

Several early amendments set the tone for the discussion on the House floor on Wednesday, including one clarifying that members cannot use campaign funds to pay funeral expenses for themselves or relatives. Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood, said the bill should define family members because there are degrees of kinship.

House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Jason White, R-West, responded that candidates could ask the ethics commission.

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, said lack of clarity in some provisions of the bill could open legislators to political retribution.

“Gentleman, this scares me,” Scott told White.

One amendment, from Rep. Jay Hughes, to make the bill effectively immediately upon passage failed overwhelmingly on a very loud no voice vote from the members. White said the bill’s effective date of Jan. 1, 2018 would allow members to get their affairs in order.

Gunn issued a statement after the vote: “The issue of campaign finance reform has been very important to me for a long time. I have put a lot of time and work into crafting this legislation to make it is as tight and clear as possible. Passing this legislation was the right thing to do.

“The people who elect us expect us to behave with integrity and honor,” Gunn continued. “This legislation effectively outlines the proper procedures for all elected officials and candidates in the handling and reporting of campaign contributions.”

Following the vote, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statement: “I’m encouraged by today’s action by the House of Representatives, and I appreciate Speaker Gunn’s leadership on this issue. The Senate passed strong campaign finance reform last year, and I’m hopeful that today’s action improves the likelihood that a legislative compromise can be reached during this session.”

Reeves, speaking on Monday, said he supports unlimited donations with unlimited disclosure.

In 2016, the Senate passed a campaign-finance reform bill that met defeat when it got to the House. The issue received new life after The Clarion-Ledger published a series of stories highlighting the use of campaign dollars on personal items and murky ethics laws.

After a lengthy debate and tough questioning from committee chairmen, the House killed reform legislation in 2016 on concerns that legislators could be open to criminal prosecution.

House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus seemed particularly concerned, saying during debate, “You know we’re going to do something wrong because we’re from Mississippi.”

Smith suggested the House Ethics Committee keep fellow members in line instead of the Mississippi Secretary of State and Attorney General’s offices having oversight; he used a procedural move to send the bill back to a conference committee late in the session, effectively killing it.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the bill number as HB 470. It is HB 479.