Mississippi campaign finance laws are about to change, and it’s not just officeholders and candidates that need to be prepared for the changes. Businesses and other organizations that seek to participate in elections and ballot measures through political committees must also be ready.
On April 11, 2017, Governor Phil Bryant signed into law Senate Bill 2689, legislation instituting several reforms to Mississippi’s campaign finance laws. The provisions in the Act that have received the most attention are those prohibiting the “personal use” of campaign contributions by officeholders and candidates and requiring officeholders and candidates to itemize all expenditures made using a credit card and paid for by campaign contributions. The Act becomes effective January 1, 2018.
Lesser-known provisions in the Act are those affecting “political committees.” Included under the state law definition of political committees are political action committees (PACs), campaign committees, clubs, associations, or any other groups of persons or affiliated organizations that receive contributions or spend more than $200.00 in a calendar year in support of a candidate or ballot measure. In Mississippi, as of late 2016, there were nearly 800 such political committees on file with the Mississippi Secretary of State.
Under current law, all such political committees are required to file a statement of organization within ten days of being formed. A political committee is considered to have formed once it has received or spent in excess of $200 in support of a candidate or ballot measure. Political committees are also required to file up to four finance disclosure reports per calendar year. Violations of a political committee’s finance disclosure requirements could result in criminal liability and up to a $3000 fine. A political committee’s finance disclosure obligations do not end until a termination report is filed on behalf of the committee.
The new Act alters these provisions to reduce the time that political committees must file statements of organization from ten days of being formed to forty-eight hours of being formed and authorizes a fine of up to $5,000 for a committee’s failure to do so.
The Act also transfers to the Mississippi Ethics Commission authority previously held by the Mississippi Secretary of State for enforcing finance disclosure requirements, and clarifies the authority of the Ethics Commission to pursue judicial remedies against noncompliant political committees.
Finally, as with officeholders and candidates, the Act requires political committees to itemize all expenditures made using a credit card in their finance disclosure reports.
As the Mississippi election calendar heats up in 2018 and 2019, political committees are sure to want to weigh in on important elections and ballot measures. In doing so, they would do well to confirm they are in compliance with Mississippi’s amended campaign finance laws.
Spencer Ritchie is an attorney in the Jackson office of Forman Watkins & Krutz LLP where he practices in the areas of general and commercial litigation and political law. Spencer is the former Executive Director of the Mississippi Republican Party. Additional information is available at www.formanwatkins.com.