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BILL CRAWFORD — Bryant should veto dark money bill

BILL CRAWFORD

“Transparency is critical to fair government,” Gov. Phil Bryant, a longtime champion of transparency and accountability in government, once said.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann also promoted transparency when he proposed revamping Mississippi election laws in 2016. As WTOK-TV in Meridian reported: “Who’s dealing out money to candidates? And which ones are taking it? The Mississippi Secretary of State intends for that information to be available electronically.”

Transparency shines a light on activities of government that otherwise would remain dark.

One key transparency requirement is for politicians to disclose who gives them campaign contributions. Mississippi Code Section 23-15-807 requires candidates from the local to state level to identify anyone or any organization who gives them in excess of $200.

When so identified, contributors’ names and addresses become public records.

Of course, there are those who want to buy candidates and influence elections who do not want their identities known. This is the realm of dark money.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizen United” decision in 2010 opened the door for 501(c)(4) “social welfare” corporations to become fronts for dark money. Big money individuals and corporations can now funnel millions into these entities for the sole purpose of influencing elections for or against candidates.

Come now Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature who want to protect dark money from the light of transparency.

House Bill 1205 introduced by Rep. Jerry Turner of Baldwyn, would prohibit public agencies from requesting donor identities from 501(c)(4) organizations and make it a crime to do so.

Republican Rep. Rob Roberson told the Starkville Daily News the law could help donors avoid repercussions from their contributions. “They were having some issues with people who have donated, whether it be to campaigns, certain causes, they had stopped attacking the issue and started attacking the people who had donated,” he explained.

Republicans pushed this dark money bill through the House 69 to 47 and through the Senate 32 to 18.

Hmmm.

Big money contributors giving thousands or millions of dollars should have their identities kept secret while the average Joe who gives just over $200 has his identity made public? Something just doesn’t smell right about this.

Oh, Mississippi Code Section 97-13-15 restricts campaign contributions from corporations to $1,000. But corporations can give dark money entities as much as they want, thereby circumventing this restriction.

“In a free society, transparency is government’s obligation to share information with citizens,” says Ballotpedia.org, a champion of government transparency. “It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.”

Note: Similar legislation was pushed this year in Kentucky. It was defeated after the public was made aware of what was going on. “Sunshine truly is the best disinfectant,” wrote the Winchester Sun newspaper.

If there is one thing Gov. Phil Bryant is known for from his time as state auditor to now it is his stance on transparency and accountability in government. He “ushered in a new era of transparency in state government,” wrote the Neshoba Democrat, and “helped pass the first ethics reform legislation in Mississippi in 25 years.”

“In a job where honesty and trustworthiness are the foundations for building public confidence in state government, Bryant made a positive difference for Mississippians,” reads a 2013 Washington Post commentary.

The Governor should veto House Bill 1205 and sustain his strong stand for transparency.

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicate columnist from Meridian.

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