Campaign finance reform goes down in the House

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A watered down version of earlier attempts to limit the use of campaign finance funds met defeat Tuesday in the House of Representatives.

After a lengthy debate and tough questioning from committee chairmen, the House voted to send the conference report on House Bill 797 back to conference committee, which will make it nearly impossible to bring back before the session ends, possibly on Thursday.

Campaign finance reform gained popularity after media reports, including a series by The Clarion-Ledger, about legislators using campaign funds for personal use.

Reform proponents say laws about campaign fund use need to be clarified. The bill would have defined uses of political donations as activities related to campaigning or holding elected office.

For example, under the proposal, funds could not be used to pay mortgages or rent unless the buildings are used for campaign purposes. Additionally, using the money to buy vehicles or clothing (with the exception of campaign cars and campaign gear such as T-shirts) would also be prohibited.

Rep. Cory Wilson, R-Madison, said the bill contained significant reforms that increased transparency in campaign finance; the changes would have taken effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus.

However, strident questioning followed from Wilson’s Republican colleagues, including House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus, who pressed Wilson on how officials would be penalized for running afoul of new rules.

“You know we’re going to do something wrong because we’re from Mississippi,” said Smith, who suggested the House Ethics Committee keep fellow members in line instead of the Mississippi Secretary of State and Attorney General’s offices having oversight.

The bill would impose a $1,000 fine for any willful violation of the law. Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, asked his colleagues not to recommit the bill to conference committee, saying, “I don’t know what else we can do to protect ourselves.”

No roll count vote occurred on the vote.