Hosemann still pushing election reform

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Delbert Hosemann

Delbert Hosemann

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann is ready to bring the Legislature back to work under the Capitol dome.

Hosemann, whose comprehensive election reform bill was unexpectedly killed in the waning hours of the session, plans to ask Gov. Phil Bryant for a special legislative session to discuss the bill again.

“It was a great, compromised piece of legislation that would be effective,” Hosemann said. “It needs to be passed. If we don’t make it in special session, we’ll make it next year. But it’s worthy to go on a special session agenda this year, and I’ll express that to the governor.”

Hosemann came within 72 hours of passing the sweeping reform, a goal more than two years in the making.

A committee of 37 people – Republicans and Democrats, senators and representatives, election commissioners and attorneys – began meeting months ago to refine the omnibus reform. Hosemann said he and members of that committee spent more than 14 hours in legislative committee hearings.

The initial bill, more than 800 pages long, touched on nearly every imaginable cornerstone of Mississippi elections: calling for early voting and online registration; the tightening of campaign finance spending regulations; the barring of voting across political lines in runoffs after primaries and more comprehensive training of poll workers.

After a tweak by the House in March, Hosemann lost the early voting and online registration sections of the bill. But he said he could have lived with that watered down version.

By the time the bill initially made it to the respective chambers for a vote, it passed unanimously: The first House vote on the bill was 120-0, while the first Senate vote on the bill was 51-0.

It would have been the most comprehensive reform of any type of the 2016 legislative session. It would have been the political peg Hosemann hung his hat on leading up to the 2019 statewide elections. And up until three days before the end of the 2016 regular session, it looked like a probability to pass.

Then the House, the same body that first considered it and adopted it, killed it.

“I was dismayed and disappointed,” Hosemann said. “It had complete bipartisan support. It was geographically dispersed. We worked and worked and worked for two years, and we brought obviously a great piece of legislation to the Legislature. Now we don’t have a bill.”

The reason for the bill’s death centered around campaign finance reform. The issue gained popularity after media reports, including a series by The Clarion-Ledger, about legislators using campaign funds for personal use.

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.

Reform proponents say laws about campaign fund use need to be clarified. But opponents, led by House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, worried the proposed campaign finance laws were too strict.

“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. Smith could not be reached for comment about Hosemann’s suggestion of a special session on election reform.

Bryant has already hinted at a special session in June so lawmakers can decide how to disperse a $150 million check from BP for oil spill damages. Some $49 million of that payment was included in the fiscal year 2017 budget passed earlier this month by the Legislature, leaving $109 million for lawmakers to consider how to spend.

Bryant would have authority to tack on the election reform bill with the BP settlement allocation in a June special session – something Hosemann said he will pursue.

“Mississippi is ready for election reform,” Hosemann said. “Our bipartisan effort and unanimous vote got it there. Just because whatever occurred in the last 72 hours of session, we shouldn’t abandon our hopes for common sense voter reform.”