A bill limiting how the state’s elected officials can spend their campaign contributions passed unanimously in the Senate Wednesday afternoon.
The bill would make several changes to current campaign finance law, which allows elected officials to pocket campaign funds as long as taxes are paid.
The bill prohibits “residential or household items,” as well as mortgage, rent or utility payments, unless used for “bona fide campaign activities” or housing during the legislative session.
It would bar spending campaign donations on funeral-related expenses, clothing (except for campaign-related purchases), automobiles (except campaign-related rentals) and tuition. Also prohibited are payments to family members unless the relatives are providing bona fide services to the campaign at market value.
“We have to be accountable to our constituents and the folks who give money to our campaigns,” said Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven and sponsor of the bill. “It’s important to have their trust. I want to do anything I can for the public and our constituents to have a little more faith and trust in our system.”
Doty said she expects the Senate bill will go to conference committee, a small group of lawmakers from both the Senate and House who confer on bills and try to work out differences between versions of a bill passed by each chamber.
The House passed more of a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill during the first week of the session. The House version, authored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, would require that credit card expenditures are itemized. Additionally, candidates would not be allowed to raise funds during the legislative session.
Enforcing proposed campaign finance laws has been a main subject of debate on both floors the past two session. Under both the Senate and House bills passed this session, candidates who violate the proposed law would be fined $1,000 plus an assessment in the amount of the misappropriated funds.
“I think the House bill probably has a better enforcement mechanism,” Doty said. “I would expect we’ll look closely at theirs. We have to decide who’s going to enforce it: the Ethics Commission or the Secretary of State. We’ll see what we can come up with in conference.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has expressed support for the legislation, stating earlier this session that he supports unlimited donations with unlimited disclosure.
In the 2016 legislative session, 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 last spring published a series of stories highlighting the use of campaign dollars by elected officials for personal purposes and outlined some of the state’s murky ethics laws.
The House and Senate bills will move to the opposite house chambers for further debate. Lawmakers can commit the bills to conference at any point.