March 23, 2016 9:55:20 AM
JACKSON -- A Mississippi Senate committee Tuesday proposed to ban elected officials and candidates from spending campaign money on themselves, after Associated Press and Clarion-Ledger reports highlighted widespread personal use.
The Senate Elections Committee amended House Bill 797 to say campaign money can't be used for purposes including rent, gasoline purchases, car payments or loans to candidates. The bill also says candidates can't cash out campaign accounts at career's end. The AP reported Sunday that at least five former Mississippi officials in recent years cashed out more than $50,000.
Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, said the news reports helped thaw longstanding resistance to making changes.
"It was well worth the wait," Zuber said. He repeatedly introduced unsuccessful proposals to ban personal use of campaign funds and cashing them out when officials retire. "For me it's an issue of what is right and moral, and reinstating confidence in the political process."
Candidates would still be able to spend the money on "ordinary and necessary expenses of a candidate or officeholder."
The bill moves to the Senate for further debate. Prospects may be cloudy in the House, though. House Apportionment and Elections Committee Chairman Bill Denny, R-Jackson, declined comment on the Senate proposal because he hadn't seen it, but his committee Tuesday called for a study of campaign finance practices, with a committee to report proposals by Oct. 15.
"The best way to do it isn't amendment by amendment when we don't really have a handle on the issue," Denny said. "We don't yet know what the whole picture is."
Mississippi is one of only five states that still allow elected officials to pocket campaign money for personal use during or after their careers, based on a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures and AP research. The others are North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Virginia.
Experts say the lack of legal safeguards could erase the line between campaign contributions and bribery.
"It erases the distinction between the political candidate and the person," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "The money might mean more to the candidate because they would know they could use it later."
The use of campaign finance money rose to prominence in last year's election campaigns after an opponent disclosed that state Auditor Stacey Pickering had bought a car, a camper and a garage door using campaign funds.
An Associated Press review found that of 99 elected officials who have left office in recent years, as many as 25 may have pocketed more than $1,000 when they closed their campaign accounts. Former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck took more than $261,000 from 2007 to 2013.
A series of reports in Jackson's Clarion-Ledger also drew attention to state officials who were spending on what appeared to be personal purposes, including cowboy boots, dry cleaning, clothing, groceries, golf outings, windshield repair, apartments in Jackson and out-of-state trips
Much ongoing spending is opaque because officials use their campaign accounts to pay off credit cards without itemizing individual charges. The House Apportionment and Elections Committee on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 2374, which would require credit card expenses be itemized on campaign reports.
The Senate amendment was added to a larger bill intended to overhaul the state election code. However, the committee didn't agree to two other proposed election law changes.
The Senate Elections committee discarded House Bill 796, which would allow voters to cast ballots during a 14-day period before any election at their county circuit clerk's office. Now, voters must offer a reason allowed under the state's absentee law to vote early. It's not clear if that proposal could be revived before the session ends.
House Bill 809, which would have allowed voters to register online, was amended to say voters could only update information online, not register initially.
Online: House Bill 797: http://bit.ly/1WGKSDs
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