Campaign finance reform almost law

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After years of talk about lawmakers’ affinity for cowboy boots and recreational vehicles, the Legislature has hammered out a deal on a campaign-finance reform package to send to Gov. Phil Bryant.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven

The Senate on Wednesday signed off on changes to Senate Bill 2689, sponsored by Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven. Debate was minimal, with senators mostly asking about technical aspects of the legislation.

If signed into law by Bryant, candidates would no longer be able to use campaign money for personal expenses, paying relatives or making loans to other political candidates.

Doty’s bill also requires itemization of credit card expenses and gives candidates who close their campaign accounts the option of returning the balances to donors, transferring funds to a political-action committee, donating to charity or giving the money to the state treasury.

In January, Bryant closed out his campaign fund, transferring the bulk of the balance to a newly formed political action committee called Imagine Mississippi PAC.

Doty’s bill requires PACs to report expenditures and receipts over $200 within 48 hours.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission will enforce the new regulations, which also apply to candidates in municipal and county elections. The ethics commission would also be able to issue confidential advisory opinions to candidates who request guidance on how to use campaign funds.

The attorney general’s office would retain oversight of criminal violations of elections law under the bill.

In recent years, Mississippi has gained the dubious distinction as being among one of the nation’s most corrupt states, in part because of weak transparency laws, including those regulating campaign-finance reporting.

A study published in 2014 ranked Mississippi as the top state for corruption, citing the state’s high poverty levels as creating an environment susceptible to political corruption.

The issue received new life after The Clarion-Ledger published a series of stories, beginning in early 2016, highlighting the use of campaign dollars on personal items and murky ethics laws governing use of campaign funds.

During the 2016 session, the Senate passed a campaign-finance reform bill that met defeat when it got to the House.

Wednesday’s move follows a tumultuous few months, when the passage of campaign finance reform at times looked bleak.

Speaker of the Mississippi House Philip Gunn

Gil Ford Photography

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, made campaign finance one of his top priorities going into this session.

Gunn-backed campaign-finance reform legislation in early January became the first substantive bill to pass the House this session. At the time Gunn said that he had personally “put a lot of time and work into crafting this legislation to make it is as tight and clear as possible” and that “the people who elect us expect us to behave with integrity and honor.”

Gunn echoed those sentiments after Wednesday’s vote in the Senate.

“We are expected, by those who elect us, to uphold certain expectations of integrity,” he said through a press release. “This legislation effectively outlines the proper procedures for all elected officials and candidates in the handling and reporting of campaign contributions.”

In late February, after Gunn’s bill languished and died in a Senate committee, the House approved a Senate bill that some members called a watered down version of the campaign finance legislation.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

All donations made before Jan. 1, 2018, are exempt from the new rules. The Secretary of State will alert the ethics commission of reporting scofflaws. The ethics commission may fine candidates up to $5,000 for failure to file “information on contributions, expenditures, officers” and other information, under the rules.

In a statement, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves called the measure “common sense reform.”

“Supporters of political candidates expect their resources to be spent on political activity, and voters deserve to know that is actually happening,” Reeves said.