The state Senate and House last week passed measures that would force politicians to publicly list campaign spending from credit cards.
But further campaign finance reform this year has so far died a swift, ignominious death in the Legislature without even a committee vote, as in years past. Lawmakers, many of whom use campaign money as a personal expense account or second income, haven’t appeared interested in policing themselves.
That could change. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said he would support further reform, which could be added by the Senate to a House omnibus elections bill. Sens. David Blount, D-Jackson, and Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, have pushed for restrictions on personal spending of campaign money this legislative session. Blount’s bill died in committee. McDaniel said he plans to add such measures as an amendment to the House elections bill, and that Reeves has indicated he would let him try.
Reeves said he opposes personal spending of campaign money, that he doesn’t do it himself and that he would support reform.
“I am of the firm belief that money is corrupting the system,” McDaniel said. “The way things are presently configured, it is very easy to — for lack of a better term — purchase influence. It’s bad enough when you use the money to run for office, but when you convert it to personal use — I’ve always called that a bribe … We cannot have people living out of their campaign funds. That’s just wrong.”
A continuing Clarion-Ledger investigation has shown Mississippi politicians spend campaign money on clothes, groceries, trips out of state, cars, apartments, home improvements, taxes, payments to their own companies and themselves and many other personal expenses prohibited in other states and in federal campaigns. For many, campaign accounts appear to have become a second income, funded by lobbyists and special interests doing business with the state.
Politicians are supposed to itemize purchases of $200 or more on campaign finance reports available to the public. But many spend thousands of dollars — some have spent tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last few years — without itemizing the spending. One way they get around the reporting requirement is to list lump-sum payments to a credit card company or bank.
Senate Bill 2374, authored by Blount and passed unanimously by the Senate, would require politicians to list expenditures for which they use a credit card, not just the payment to the card company.
House Bill 797, an “omnibus” election reform bill passed by the House, includes a similar requirement for campaign credit card reporting. It also includes numerous code sections that would allow it to be amended with further campaign finance reform, such as restrictions on personal spending.
But if the Senate did add such measures, it’s unclear whether the House would approve. House Speaker Philip Gunn — who himself spent more than $137,000, non-itemized, on a campaign credit card over the last four years and has loaned himself $25,000 from his campaign — was noncommittal in a recent interview about further reform. He said he supports itemization of credit card spending, and he authored a bill (which died) to require it. But he said, “I don’t know” about whether he would support further reform such as a ban or restrictions on personal spending. Gunn said he hasn’t had anyone other than The Clarion-Ledger broach the issue with him.
“You’re the first one to bring that question up,” Gunn said. “I think it’s certainly something we could look at, and discuss.”
Blount and others have noted the state’s lack of enforcement on what campaign finance regulations and reporting requirements already exist, and said that’s an area that needs legislation as well.
“The best laws in the world won’t work if they’re not enforced,” Blount said. He said the Legislature should consider giving someone audit authority over campaign reports but said, “first and foremost, we need disclosure.”
Attorney General Jim Hood praised the Senate’s passage of the credit card itemization bill, which he helped author. He had also called for legislation to restrict personal spending of campaign money.
But Hood has paid himself and credit cards and banks more than $280,000 from his campaign account over four years with no detail of the spending. He has declined to answer questions about his own campaign finance reports or to be interviewed about enforcement or other campaign finance issues.
Blount said, “We need more legislators interested and committed to doing something about this.”
McDaniel’s amendment, similar to Blount’s bill that died in committee, would place restrictions similar to those on federal campaigns on state campaigns. It would prohibit personal spending, and define what constitutes personal spending — such as car payments and clothing. It would also ban lawmaker campaign fundraising during a legislative session. There is supposed to be a “gentleman’s agreement” between politicians and lobbyists not to do this, but McDaniel said “it certainly still goes on.”
McDaniel said, “I’m not sure there’s a lot of support to change, but I am cautiously optimistic. I believe a vote should be taken, and done where people can watch and note the votes.”
Contact Geoff Pender at (601) 961-7266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Mollie Bryant at email@example.com or (601) 961-7251. Contact Kate Royals at (601) 360-4619 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @GeoffPender, @MollieEBryant, and @KRRoyals on Twitter.
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