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Campaign finance filing reforms on the horizon in Mississippi

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

  • Lawmakers in the Senate are considering ways to provide increased transparency while streamlining the campaign filing process.

During the 2023 election cycle, Magnolia State officials began to discuss the potential for campaign finance and reporting reforms. Questions centered around how some candidates’ campaigns were reporting donations and expenditures, and what entities were inserting themselves into state elections.

Recently, the Mississippi Senate put forward a bill that could impact the campaign finance filing process for state candidates.

State Senator Jeremy England (R) has authored SB 2575, legislation he says comprises suggestions made by the Secretary of State’s office, Attorney General, and Lieutenant Governor. All three entities offered their own takes on potential legislation early on in the session.

“It’s really a ‘Frankenstein’ bill of all three, which I think is how we get the best policy anyway,” said England after the bill was passed in the Senate Elections Committe which he chairs. “For the most part, I think we got a bill out of committee that still needs some work bringing all the pieces together, but I think we are going to get there.”

Senator England said the legislation is primarily focused on providing clarity and transparency to the state’s current campaign finance filing laws. One element of the language clarifies the forms used in the filing process. England said moving forward financial reporting for a candidate would be done through a committee form, such as “The Committee to Elected ________ (insert candidate name).”

“The candidate can be the only person on the committee and call it whatever they want but we want it to be one form and understand that will be the entity reporting going forward,” said England.

In the past, the Coast Senator said there has been confusion between a committee for a candidate and the actual candidate in the finance filings.

Secondly, lawmakers are addressing out-of-state corporation donations. The bill would provide the same $1,000 cap on out-of-state businesses contributions to a campaign as it does for those within Mississippi.

England’s legislation appears to have the support of Senate leadership.

“Dark money from out-of-state interests are creeping into our elections,” Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann (R) said in a statement. “We want to make sure, within the bounds of federal law, our campaign finance laws are as transparent as possible. We also want to hold candidates and political committees more accountable for their filings and campaign activity. Senator England’s bill is a big step in the right direction, and we appreciate his work.”

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (Photo by Jeremy Pittari)

The Secretary of State’s (SOS) office has been open about the potential of building an online filing portal to be used statewide. Senator England said originally there was a provision to have all filings done online by January 1, 2027. However, that was amended because of concerns regarding digital access to filing.

The original language also required that the system to be set up by the SOS was to be easily searchable to increase transparency among donations for candidates. England said lawmakers are hopeful that an online only filing will be something in the future, but concerns were raised in committee that not all Mississippians have easy access to broadband in order to comply with that measure.

Senator England indicated he expects a provision to be part of the bill that will change the digital or paper filing process prior to its passage.

In a statement to Magnolia Tribune, Secretary of State Michael Watson said that while he’s pleased to see the Legislature moving campaign finance reform forward, a key component providing more transparency and accountability was stripped in committee.

“In the 21st century, there’s no reason why an efficient and effective online filing system for every elected position in Mississippi should not and could not be implemented,” Watson stated. “Further, the Ethics Commission receives roughly 5,000 statements of economic interest from elected and appointed officials across our state, only about 20 aren’t received online.”

Secretary of State Michael Watson (Photo by Sarah Ulmer)

The SOS’s office has been in the process of updating the current online system.

For those who do not file according to state law, penalties would be increased. Any individual, or authorized representative, who fails to adhere to the filing provisions could be convicted of a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $5,000 or one year in jail.

Currently, investigative power when a regulation has been violated is held by the Attorney General’s office. Senator England said language in the bill would allow the Secretary of State’s office to investigate violations. However, he anticipates clarification will be necessary as the provision is only intended for an initial investigation. After that, a request will be made by the SOS office and the case will then be picked up by the prosecuting agency, the Attorney General’s office. After a request for investigation is filed by the Secretary of State’s office, the Attorney General must file a writ of mandamus within three business days.

The Ethics Commission has previously been involved in the filing process, but the bill removes the Commission unless an issue arises with a sitting Secretary of State.

The bill provides a new outline for the 48-hour report, or the report done two days prior to an election. It now will include not only contributions to a candidate made within 10 days of an election, but expenditures as well.

“We have also clarified what a coordinated contribution and coordinated communication looks like and those are limited in the amounts,” said England.

He said this was done to ensure a corporation or company working with a candidate cannot bypass the system if they spend the money.

“That is now going to be a contribution to the candidate,” England said, adding that the intent is to ensure that if an entity is involved in fundraising or planning for a candidate, they file with the state.

Currently in local elections, candidates are required to file with their local Clerk. Counties and municipalities are then required to file with the Secretary of State’s office. Senator England said lawmakers have had conversations about whether that will be changed and indicated it would likely depend on what the potential online system looks like.

“This has been a moving target from day one and it’s still going to be something we are going to work on,” said England.

The Senate Chairman expects additional amendments to the bill, likely to come from floor discussions. He anticipates the bill will end up in conference as more insight is requested into the changes being made.

Attorney General Lynn Fitch told Magnolia Tribune that her office has found “big gaps” in campaign reporting laws.

Mississippi Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“Last year, through our investigations of several instances of clearly unethical and immoral campaign behavior, we identified big gaps in our laws that allow special interests from outside Mississippi to have outsized influence, to avoid reporting their activities to the people, and to evade criminal prosecution or serious penalty,” said Attorney General Fitch. “Closing these gaps will shine a light on campaign spending and hold special interests accountable, and I am grateful for Senator England’s willingness to work with us on this important legislation.”

Fitch went on to add that the people of Mississippi deserve to know who is seeking to influence their elections and to put a stop to meddling that pushes the limits of truth and decency.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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