With longtime members rebelling against changes, the Mississippi House voted down a bill that would have restricted personal use of campaign money.
The unrecorded voice vote on House Bill 797 came Tuesday after several House members complained about proposed restrictions, including ending the ability to take money for personal use to repay undocumented campaign expenses.
The campaign finance changes had been attached to a broader rewrite of state election law, and could return in modified form in the closing days of the Legislature.
The proposal came after The Associated Press and The Clarion-Ledger questioned campaign spending. Some officials took leftover money from accounts when they retired, or spent it on things like cars, clothing and personal travel. Experts say the practice makes campaign contributions perilously close to bribes. Mississippi is one of only five states that still allow elected officials to pocket campaign money for personal use during or after their careers.
Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said he felt any change could penalize him personally because he had invested money in his campaigns that he had never recorded as a loan, and thus might not be able to get back.
“I don’t have enough funds in my campaign account to repay it,” Gipson said.
Many former lawmakers interviewed by The Associated Press earlier this year said they cashed out their accounts at the end of their careers to get back campaign money that they had never recorded as a loan to their campaign. An Associated Press review found that of 99 elected officials who have left office in recent years, as many as 25 may have pocketed more than $1,000 when they closed their campaign accounts and five took more than $50,000. Former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck took more than $261,000 from 2007 to 2013.
The use of campaign funds became an issue in last year’s election campaigns after an opponent disclosed that state Auditor Stacey Pickering had bought a car, a camper and a garage door using campaign money.
A series of reports in The Clarion-Ledger drew attention to state officials who were spending on what appeared to be personal purposes, including cowboy boots, dry cleaning, clothing, groceries, golf outings, windshield repair, apartments in Jackson and out-of-state trips.
Officials use their campaign accounts to pay off credit cards without itemizing individual charges. The agreed-on version of the bill would have required credit card expenses be itemized on campaign reports.
Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, made the motion to return the bill to committee. “I’m opposed to all of it,” Smith said after the voice vote. “I don’t like it.”
Records show Smith, chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has spent more than $20,000 in recent years from his campaign account on unitemized payments to banks and credit card companies, an insurance company and a golf club.
House Apportionment and Elections Committee Chairman Bill Denny, R-Jackson, pleaded with members not to torpedo the bill, noting that money raised through Jan. 1 could still be taken for personal use.
The proposal said candidates couldn’t use campaign funds to pay the mortgages on their primary residences, pay for family funerals or buy clothing, and could only pay for their own travel for political or official purposes. But it would have allowed lawmakers to spend up to $50 a day to rent housing in Jackson during the Legislature, even while receiving per diem payments. A lawmaker wouldn’t be allowed to pay a legal fine, but could still pay lawyer costs stemming from a candidacy or official duties.
“We’ve made this as liberal as we possibly can” Denny told the House. “Whatever money you have in your funds are your money and they will remain your dollars,”
House and Senate negotiators tried to strike a middle ground Monday between stricter rules proposed by the Senate and the House’s proposal to only study the issue.
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann won a broad range of other proposed changes. However, lawmakers rejected his proposals for a no-excuses early voting period and online voter registration. Gov. Bryant has signed House Bill 809, allowing voters to update existing registrations online.
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