Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, speaks at St.Luke M.B. Church in Dundee, Miss., Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

TUPELO —  Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley on Thursday called for state leaders to reform Mississippi’s notoriously lax campaign finance laws and expand the role of the state’s Ethics Commission to enforce lobbying and campaign contribution regulations. 

Speaking in Tupelo, Presley called on lawmakers to pass a law that transfers campaign finance filings from the Secretary of State’s Office, where it’s currently housed, to the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which only handles some aspects of the current rules. 

The Democratic candidate, currently north Mississippi’s utility regulator, also urged state leaders to give the commission power to conduct random audits of candidates’ campaign finance donations and expenditures to keep him and other politicians “on our toes.” 

“We’re going to propose this plan to restore pride, faith in state government,” Presley said, “to make sure that we’re not the laughingstock of the nation when it comes to campaign finance reports.” 

The current campaign finance laws are a confusing, often conflicting patchwork that requires three different state agencies to have some role in enforcing the regulations.

“It’s a mess,” state Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood recently told Mississippi Today of Mississippi’s campaign finance laws. “Changes have been made multiple times over multiple years, and it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit.”

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While confusing, most state leaders agree that candidates are currently supposed to file campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State’s office, but that agency mainly acts as a record-keeping entity. If candidates skirt the laws or fail to file a report, the agency forwards their name to the Ethics Commission for review. 

The commission can then vote to levy fines against a candidate, but if a candidate fails to pay that fine, the commission, in theory, eventually notifies the Attorney General to consider filing a civil suit against them to recover the unpaid fine. 

Mississippi also spends less money on ethics enforcement — $730,000 — than other surrounding states, such as Alabama, which spends more than $3 million a year on ethics accountability. 

But Presley said if he is elected, he would also urge legislators to appropriate more money and resources to allow the commission to handle more responsibilities. 

Other proposals Presley outlined are: 

  • Establishing a task force to recommend how state government can strengthen ethics regulations.
  • Supporting legislation to prohibit companies seeking a license, permit, or non-competitive contract from the state from donating more than $250 to political campaigns from the date of solicitation and for 12 months after the final award is made.
  • Requiring the governor’s office and all state agencies to keep records of all meetings with lobbyists and companies and individuals lobbying the government for contracts or legislation that benefits them.
  • Encouraging that campaign finance reports to be available, submitted online, easily accessible to the public, and due every 30 days in an election year and quarterly in non-election years.

The Democratic candidate has made ethics reform a central part of his statewide campaign, and he has called on lawmakers to pass laws that ban state officials from raising money while the Legislature is in session. 

The political discourse over ethics reform between Presley and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has devolved into a separate issue over who has donated to the two candidates campaigns for public office.

When asked recently about his presumptive Democratic opponent’s ethics reforms proposals, Reeves’ campaign did not substantively address Presley’s policies, but criticized the Democratic candidate for accepting campaign donations from Richard Scruggs, who pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge and a federal mail fraud charge in 2009.

Scruggs served a stint in prison, which he completed in 2014. He donated $10,000 to Presley’s campaign, according to the candidate’s most recent campaign finance report, and he regularly donates to political candidates in the state.

But Presley last week said he is complying with current campaign finance laws and pointed the finger back at Reeves for previously accepting donations from such Nancy and Zach New, who pleaded guilty to crimes related to the state’s welfare scandal and are waiting for a judge to determine their prison sentence.

Editor’s Note: Dickie Scruggs has been a donor of Mississippi Today. Donors do not influence Mississippi Today’s editorial decisions, and a list of our donors can be found here.

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.