Politicians in Mississippi can continue to spend campaign donations on dry cleaning, car insurance, sports tickets and more after they voted down campaign finance reform measures in the House on Tuesday.
Making matters worse—this was a voice vote, so constituents who go to the ballot-box on election day don’t know how their representatives voted on the state’s campaign finance reform effort.
The Clarion-Ledger has run an ongoing series this year examining how Mississippi’s politicians have used their public offices for private gain, campaign war-chests included. (This follows a similar series by the South Carolina Post and Courier / Center for Public Integrity last year)
Here are a few key findings straight from the Public Office/Private Gain series:
- Campaign funds are exempt from taxes, ethics and other laws.
- Sen. Dean Kirby (R-Pearl) leases a vehicle, pays for auto insurance, buys gasoline and Braves season tickets.
- Rep. Mark Formby (R-Picayune) buys suits and a pair of $800 cowboy boots that are only for “official legislative business.” Despite being paid $26,598 by the state for travel, he also pays for an apartment and travel out of his campaign expenses.
- Rep. Deborah Butler Dixon (D-Raymond) filed a blank form for her 2012 expenditures and her 2014 form is missing. She spent $7,200 on gas in six months.
- Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) loaned himself $25,000 from his campaign, and records show he only paid back $11,000.
The Clarion-Ledger also reports that State Auditor Stacey Pickering was under federal investigation for more than $135,000 in campaign expenses, including a BMW.
State lawmakers refusing any campaign finance or ethics reforms also flies in the face of their D- grade in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven analysis of transparency, ethics and enforcement across all 50 states last year. Mississippi received F grades for political financing (where they also ranked dead-last nationally), electoral oversight and public access to information.
From their investigation:
The state ethics commission rarely uses its power to investigate public officials and does not make public all of the cases it does pursue.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center examined full- and part-time statehouse reporters across the country, and here Mississippi didn’t fare any better. It found “there is only one reporter for every 741,824 people” in the state.
To summarize: it appears state lawmakers refuse to regulate themselves, and watchdogs like the State Auditor and Attorney General are equally uninterested. Despite in-depth coverage by local news organizations like the Clarion-Ledger, the press is fighting an uphill battle for transparency with fewer resources and reporters.
But with thousands of protesters in Washington and around the country clamoring about the outsized influence of money in politics, efforts to hold elected officials accountable continue. On the heels of the Democracy Awakening, one of the biggest money-in-politics protests in history, event organizers are encouraging activists to take the fight for clean elections back to the states. We’ll keep our eye on the state and bring you updates as they occur.