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Does Mississippi have any campaign finance rules? Legislative inaction, AG’s statements leave doubt

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Does Mississippi have any campaign finance rules? Legislative inaction, AG’s statements leave doubt

Jun 05, 2024 | 9:32 am ET
By Geoff Pender
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Does Mississippi have any campaign finance rules? Legislative inaction, AG’s statements leave doubt
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Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch speaks to pro-life demonstrators at the Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2021. (Photo by Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP)

An attempt to reform Mississippi’s lax, antiquated and jacked-up campaign finance laws went over like a lead balloon with lawmakers in this year’s legislative session, with Republicans and Democrats alike gutting and deriding the reform bill before killing it.

So, that leaves the Magnolia State where it was, right? Weak laws. Little transparency for voters or enforcement for wrongdoers. Our government susceptible to the corrosive influence of secretive big-money special interests.

No. It’s worse.

In her eleventh-hour hop onto the reform bandwagon, Attorney General Lynn Fitch, the state’s top law officer, publicly opined, in writing, that she can’t legally enforce the laws we do have. Oh, and that a $1,000 a year limit on out-of-state corporate donations to our politicians that everyone believed was law for at least the last 30 years is null and void under her new interpretation. She put that part of her press release in italics, for emphasis.

Fitch’s last-minute joinder of calling for reform was seen as deflection of the flak she was receiving for not enforcing what many, including Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, believed were flagrant violations of laws already on the books during last year’s statewide elections. Millions of dollars in dark money poured into Mississippi campaigns and some candidates appeared to thumb their noses at what rules we do have.

Many chalked up Fitch’s inaction on the complaints to not wanting to ruffle political feathers or sour relationships with potential donors for her own future political ambitions.

Despite Fitch lamenting, “We’re allowing out-of-state influencers to determine and to pick who the candidates should be in our state … (and) We’ve got to have enforcement …,” a Mississippi Today analysis of her own campaign finance reports showed a majority of her campaign money came from out-of-state businesses: about $727,000 of $1.27 million.

Also, Fitch appears to receive lots of money from out-of-state interests to whom she awards AG office contracts. Records show she signed at least nine AG contracts last year with out-of-state law firms that had donated more than $300,000 to her campaign.

There has never been traction in the Mississippi Legislature for “pay-to-play” campaign donation prohibitions like other states have enacted.

Fitch, the only official with clear legal authority to investigate and enforce campaign finance violations, in her Feb. 6 press release appeared to throw in the towel on her office enforcing current laws: “Last year, we were asked to investigate several instances of clearly unethical and immoral campaign behavior. But we discovered they were not criminal under our current laws.”

So, what now?

Secretary of State Michael Watson helped lead the push for reform along with Hosemann and Senate Elections Chairman Jeremy England, R-Vancleave. The three have vowed to continue that push next legislative session.

In the meantime, Watson said he will continue to forward suspected violations to the AG’s office, as the law prescribes. And, he said, he will continue to tell candidates there is (note the italics) a $1,000 a year limit on donations from both in-state and out-of-state corporations. He said this limit will remain in the written campaign finance guide the secretary of state’s office has provided candidates for decades.

It’s noteworthy that despite her Feb. 6 interpretation that no such limit applies to out-of-state corporations, Fitch appeared to think it did in August of 2023. After months of inaction on major campaign finance complaints, she announced then that she would investigate whether a PAC run by unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidate Chris McDaniel’s campaign treasurer tried “exceeding corporate contribution limits” by shuffling out-of-state money through PACs.

“We are going to continue along the lines we have practiced for years and years,” Watson said. “… And, we are not going to stop, we are going to keep pushing for campaign finance reform.

“I don’t have prosecutorial authority,” Watson said. “I can’t prosecute so I have to have a willing and able attorney general working with me.”

Watson could hand off suspected campaign finance violations to local district attorneys. But Watson’s office said that DAs typically would refer such misdemeanors down to county prosecutors, who don’t have the resources to investigate or prosecute such violations. Plus, such complaints are often about districtwide or statewide candidates, often running in areas that extend beyond the jurisdiction of a county prosecutor or DA.

Watson said he believes current statute and definitions and decades of practice uphold the $1,000 limit and that other campaign finance laws — while in need of an overhaul — could still be enforced by the AG. But he did question her comments early this year.

“That was an interesting statement on her behalf, perhaps to dodge a little,” Watson said. “… If folks rely on her position, I do think it opens the door for outside dollars to flow in.”

Lawmakers have not only been loath to strengthen campaign finance laws and increase penalties, they’ve not wanted to provide offices such as the secretary of state or the Ethics Commission clear duties on collecting finance and other reports and enforcing deadlines. Such laws have been piecemealed and tweaked over many years in the name of reform, but now they often conflict, with one part of statute giving Ethics a responsibility, another saying the same responsibility belongs to the secretary of state’s office.

Watson has said he’s not not seeking more power for his office, but last year said, “… when people do not do their jobs, I will stand in the gap for Mississippians,” which appeared to be a dig at Fitch and a call for someone to be responsible for campaign finance enforcement.

Also, lawmakers have shown they not only don’t want stronger campaign finance rules and enforcement, they don’t want the citizenry to even be able to clearly see who donates to candidates and how much.

Most other states, including all those surrounding Mississippi, have searchable campaign finance databases. One can, for instance, type in the name of a donor and see all the campaigns to which the person donated and how much.

Setting up such data would not require Mississippi candidates learn any real computer skills — they could simply type in donation information into fields in a form on the secretary of state’s website.

But lawmakers have shot down any effort to require such electronic campaign finance reports, including this year when Watson pitched it as part of his proposed reforms. Instead, Mississippi politicians can still file paper reports and hand-write them, which many still do with varying degrees of legibility. While Watson’s office puts reports online, they are PDFs — pictures of pages that a citizen would have to go through page by page to tally donations. Cross referencing donors across all campaigns or even inspection to make sure the reports were filled out properly would be a daunting task.

While lawmakers shot down England’s reform bill, with many voicing dismay at the inclusion of an online campaign finance filing requirement, the Legislature did approve $3.9 million for an overhaul of the secretary of state’s computer system. Watson said he believes he can still move forward on developing such a filing system, although he said he would still require legislative approval to make electronic filing mandatory.

“The (request for proposals) for that system is going out in June, and it will have a platform for online campaign finance reporting,” Watson said. “… I think we will get there eventually. I think we can educate (lawmakers) on how simple it will be to use.”

Watson said he knows campaign finance reform and strengthening laws and penalties is a tough sell in the Legislature, but he believes change will come eventually. He noted that despite England’s bill being shot down, “There were a large number of legislators who commented it was the right thing to do.”

He said eventually, campaign finance authority should be centralized, even if it’s not under his office.

“I have no problem with that whatsoever,” Watson said recently. “That’s what we told the Legislature — just centralize campaign finance under one roof. Mississippians deserve it. I don’t want more authority, but I want the law to be followed.”