Mississippi Outlaws Personal Use of Campaign Funds
By Bobby Harrison
Legislation that would prohibit politicians from using their campaign finance funds for personal use was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant Tuesday in his state Capitol office.
When the 2017 session began in January, the bill was labeled as a priority by both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate.
Efforts were made to pass similar legislation during the 2016 session, but it was killed in the House. Mississippi was one of a handful of states where politicians could spend their campaign finance funds on personal items.
Under the bill signed into law by the governor Tuesday, personal use would be defined as any use of the campaign finance funds that would have to be reported to the Internal Revenue Service as gross income.
The bill allows the funds to be spent only on campaign-related expenses or activities related to their office. For instance, a politician can use campaign funds to pay for gas to drive to another town to give a speech to a civics club. Or a legislator can use the funds to help pay for housing in Jackson, up to $50 per day if the officeholder is receiving per diem and a maximum $190 per day if the officeholder is not receiving per diem.
The money can be used for lodging when "the officeholder is required by his or her duties to be at the Capitol or another location outside the officeholder's county of residence."
Politicians can garner opinions from the Ethics Commission if they have questions about the proper use of campaign finance funds. The opinions would be public, though, the names of the politicians requesting the opinions would be confidential.
Credit card expenditures of more than $200 have to itemized on the campaign finance report.
A key piece of the legislation prevents politicians from converting campaign finance funds to their personal use upon retirement.
The Ethics Commission also would be responsible for enforcement of campaign finance reporting laws. The misuse of campaign finance funds would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and an amount equal to the misappropriated funds.
A $5,000 fine could be imposed for not filing correct campaign finance information and a $50 per day fine for up to 10 days could be imposed for not filing a report.
The legislation does not go into effect until Jan. 1. Campaign funds raised before Jan. 1 are not subject to the new restrictions.
(c)2017 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.)