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Mississippi House Speaker Phillip Gunn

Gunn puts campaign finance bill on fast track

By BOBBY HARRISON

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has placed on the fast track legislation attempting to prevent political candidates from using campaign finance funds for personal use.

Similar legislation was killed during the 2016 session in the House at some personal embarrassment to Gunn.

But on Wednesday, the legislation bearing the speaker’s name as the primary author passed the House by a 102-13 vote.

The bill was introduced on Wednesday, referred to the Rules Committee by Gunn, instead of the expected Elections Committee, and passed on the House floor later in the day. Discussions of the bill on the House floor lasted a little more than one hour.

Gunn admitted that he sent the bill to the Rules Committee because it is, under House guidelines, one of only two committees he serves, and he wanted to be in a position “to shepherd” the legislation.

“The people who elect us expect us to behave with integrity and honor,” Gunn said in a statement. “This legislation effectively outlines the proper procedures for all elected officials and candidates in the handling and reporting of campaign contributions.”

Mississippi is one of a few states with no prohibition on converting campaign funds to personal use as long as taxes are paid on the money if spent on personal expenses. Various media reports have detailed campaign funds being used to buy clothing, automobiles and other items. Plus, candidates have converted large campaign war chests to their personal accounts upon leaving office.

The bill states campaign fund expenditures should be “related to gaining or holding public office, or performing the functions and duties of public office.”

Unlike last year, there was little opposition to the bill on the House floor. Some of the primary concerns centered around the fact the bill would apply to all political candidates, including those on the local level, not just those running for legislative seats and statewide posts.

The bill also would end the often-used practice of reporting a payment on a credit card as an expenditure and not itemizing how the credit card was used.

The bill will prohibit candidates for legislative seats, the governor and lieutenant governor from fundraising during the legislative session.

Under the legislation, the enforcement of issues related to the filing of campaign finance reports would be conducted by the Mississippi Ethics Commission. A candidate could face a misdemeanor charge and penalty of $1,000 for converting campaign funds to personal use, plus the candidate would be required to reimburse the cost associated with the personal use of the funds.

The Ethics Commission also could levy a fine of up to $5,000 and a misdemeanor charge for not filing campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State’s office or local clerks’ offices for local candidates.

Importantly, if a candidate has a question about the expenditure of campaign funds, an opinion can be sought from the Ethics Commission. A candidate following the Ethics Commission opinion would be exempt from prosecution.

The Ethics Commission opinions could be crucial since there are issues that could be tricky to navigate. For instance, Rules Chair Jason White, R-West, who explained the bill on the House floor, said the bill would allow a legislator to use campaign funds to help pay for lodging, even purchase a home, in Jackson to use during the session, but not to do the same in the legislator’s hometown.

Gunn said the bill would allow a candidate to purchase walking shoes to go door-to-door campaigning or to buy campaign T-shirts, but not to buy an expensive suit.

On the House floor, Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, was unsuccessful in moving up the effective date of the bill to immediately upon it being signed into law by the governor. He said the bill’s current effective date, January 2018, gives candidates time to continue to use the funds for personal use – even at an accelerated rate. But White argued officials need time to adjust to a new law.

The bill now goes to the Senate where similar legislation passed last year.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

Twitter: @BobbyHarrison9

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