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Campaign finance high on agenda for session

TATE REEVES

By BOBBY HARRISON

JACKSON – Legislators, stinging from criticism they received during the 2016 session for their inability to pass campaign finance reform, no doubt will place a priority on the issue during the 2017 session, starting at noon today.

Both Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn said in separate, recent interviews that passing legislation dealing with campaign finance will be a top priority.

There will be multiple controversial and impactful bills considered during the scheduled 90-day session, but campaign finance will be a priority after the embarrassment of the 2016 session where the House leadership could not garner the votes to pass a campaign finance proposal.

“Campaign finance is something we would like to see passed,” Gunn said recently.

At issue is the fact that Mississippi law does not restrict politicians from using contributions to their campaigns for personal expenses. The only restriction is federal law that requires the politicians to pay taxes on the funds if they are used for personal expenses.

Various media outlets have reported on instances of elected officials using their campaign finance funds for a litany of sources ranging from buying clothes, to purchasing cars to converting their campaign finance funds to their personal accounts upon leaving office.

Gunn was among numerous officeholders who reported a payment to a credit card company without itemizing on the publicly available campaign finance report what was purchased via the credit card. Any new law is expected to require credit card statements to be itemized on the campaign finance reports filed on a regular basis with the Secretary of State’s office.

In the 2016 session, the Senate originally passed a stronger version of the bill, but agreed to a weaker proposal. But that proposal was killed in the House via a voice vote. The required 13 members did not stand to demand a recorded vote.

Poor families’ funeral expenses

Members – across party lines – expressed various concerns with the proposal. Some, primarily African- American members, expressed concerns that changes to the law might make it difficult for them to use campaign finance funds to help poor families with funeral expenses, as is a custom.

Gunn said the key is “to make sure the funds are being used for a purpose as it pertains to being a legislator.”

He said, for instance, he does not believe it is proper for an elected official to use campaign contributions to purchase an automobile. But he said he does believe it is a legitimate expense to use campaign contributions to pay for gas to travel to a civic club to deliver a speech.

Reeves said he is in favor of unlimited contributions as long as the receipt and the expenditure of the funds are fully reported and available to the public. In addition, he said people running for office must understand that thoroughly filling out campaign finance reports – as prescribed by law – is not an option. In many instances, some of the information is not placed on the reports, such as the occupation of the campaign contributor.

“We have to do a better job with disclosure,” he said.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

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