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Campaign finance reform bill gets cold response; lawmakers axe transparency component

Inflamed by lack of investigation or enforcement of what he claimed were flagrant campaign finance violations by his opponent, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann after winning his reelection primary last summer vowed to push for reform.

Secretary of State Michael Watson, who said his hands were legally tied on dealing with such complaints, also vowed to push for reform and more authority for his office to police the flow of money into Mississippi politics.

On Tuesday the Senate Elections Committee moved forward a bill authored by Elections Chairman Jeremy England, R-Vancleave, one of Hosemann’s top lieutenants. The “omnibus” bill would give Watson’s office more power, add transparency for voters, increase penalties and fines and allow the secretary of state’s office to sidestep the AG’s office if it refuses to go after bad actors (which has been the current AG’s MO).

READ MORE: Attorney General Lynn Fitch wants campaign finance reform and more enforcement — wait, what?

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the Senate Elections Committee viewed the measure with a gimlet eye. They immediately axed its main transparency component, and added a “reverse repealer” to it, ensuring it cannot be passed into law as is. Only then did they send it along to the full Senate.

Mississippi lawmakers have long been loathe to expose themselves to transparency or strict ethics, lobbying or campaign finance rules and enforcement. The Legislature, for example, exempts itself from the open records and meetings laws it forces on others in government.

Mississippi’s campaign finance laws and reporting requirements are lax, and enforcement is nearly nonexistent. These laws have been piecemealed over many years, and the resultant hodgepodge is a confusing, often conflicting set of codes.

Hosemann said he wants an overhaul, and England’s bill covered many fronts, including creating a felony crime of perjury for willfully filing false finance reports, and a requirement that Mississippi join the modern age with candidates filing reports electronically and the secretary of state providing a publicly searchable database of campaign finance reports.

“This goes to the heart of the electoral process in this country,” Hosemann said on Monday. “Our founding fathers said the best thing we can have is an informed voter, and to have an informed voter you need to know who’s paying for what, who’s contributing to these candidates.”

Most other states, including all those surrounding Mississippi, have searchable databases of campaign contributions. For instance, a voter could type in a donor’s name and see to whom and how much that donor has given. While Mississippi’s SOS office has online campaign finance records, they are non-searchable PDFs — essentially pictures of pages — and candidates are still allowed to file paper, handwritten — even written in crayon — campaign finance reports.

Watson has advocated creating a searchable database, and lawmakers are expected to approve about $5 million in funding for a new SOS computer system. England’s bill would have required a searchable database and candidates to file electronically by 2027.

But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said requiring Mississippi candidates to use such technology — either filing electronic reports or filling out online report forms — would be too onerous. He said this would prevent those who don’t have computers or cannot use them from running for office. He noted many areas of the state still lack high-speed internet service.

Bryan offered a successful amendment to strip the requirement for candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically.

Bryan and others also voiced trepidation about measures in the bill to aid investigation and prosecution of campaign finance violations. The measure, England said, changed a lot of “mays” about investigation and prosecution into “shalls.” It also says the secretary of state’s office, after it reports potential violations to the attorney general’s office, can hire outside counsel, engage a district attorney or find a special prosecutor if the AG’s office refuses to act.

“We are trying to clear up gray areas,” England said. “… so we don’t have situations where we don’t know who’s responsible to do what.”

But Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said he fears this would amount to “shopping for a prosecutor who’s willing to prosecute … almost like fishing for prosecution.”

Bryan said, “I worry we are weaponizing the filing of complaints” against candidates.

After numerous critical questions about the measure, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, successfully offered an amendment to add a “reverse repealer” to the bill. This says the bill repeals before it could take effect, meaning it could not be passed into law without further scrutiny and work.

“Our laws can use a tune-up from time to time, but there are a lot of questions on this,” Blount said. “Let’s just keep working on this bill.”

England said that despite the rocky start, “I think we’ll get something out this year,” even if all the proposed reforms don’t make it. As to the searchable campaign finance database like other states have, he said, “I think we will eventually see that added back, just maybe not this year.”

The House this session did not have an omnibus campaign finance reform bill, but had several smaller measures. Most died without a vote in committee with Tuesday’s deadline.

New House Speaker Jason White, who in the past has championed some campaign finance reform measures, said he is open to such legislation.

“One specific thing lots of lawmakers are talking about is how we can better enforce the laws we have on the books now,” White said recently. “Also, transparency and searchable information that is easily accessed and available to the public is another potential place we could improve.”

Some highlights of Senate Bill 2575 authored by England:

  • It would remove the state Ethics Commission from campaign finance duties. The commission, spartanly staffed and funded, had been given some oversight over campaign finance reports, but the law was unclear on its authority, and conflicted with other laws still on the books. Hosemann said the secretary of state and attorney general offices have more staff, attorneys and expertise to deal with the regulations and laws.
  • The bill would increase criminal penalties for willful violations of campaign finance laws from up to $3,000 and six months in jail to up to $5,000 and a year in jail. It would create a felony penalty of perjury for willfully filing false campaign finance reports. It would also increase fines and penalties for administrative violations, such as failing to file campaign finance reports timely.
  • It would define coordinated expenditures and electioneering, seeking to prohibit third parties spending to help candidates but claiming they are acting independently and not following contribution limits and cut down on millions in “dark money” that has begun flowing into Mississippi elections.
  • Would clearly define corporations and clarify that corporations both in state and out of state are limited to contributions of $1,000 a year. Recently, AG Lynn Fitch said state law is not clear on the definition of a corporation, and she opined that out-of-state corporations don’t face the $1,000 limit — contrary to decades of interpretation of Mississippi’s law and practice.
  • Would require candidates to list the name, address and occupation of a donor. It would also give the secretary of state authority to check reports to make sure they are complete and appear accurate. Under current law, the secretary’s office is simply a repository, and has little oversight on whether reports are accurate and complete.

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