Miss. Politics: Where the Sun Don’t Shine | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Miss. Politics: Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Mississippi does a poor job regulating political financing and granting access to government information compared to other states, particularly in municipal elections such as the recent Jackson mayor’s contest.

Mississippi does a poor job regulating political financing and granting access to government information compared to other states, particularly in municipal elections such as the recent Jackson mayor’s contest. Photo by Trip Burns.

Comparatively speaking, Mississippi does a poor job regulating political spending and granting access to government, national watchdog groups say.

These deficiencies came into sharp focus during the Jackson mayor's race when several of the candidates who ran for mayor, including incumbent city council members, failed to file statements of economic interest or disclose certain expenditures. In addition, shadowy political-action committees formed and gave money to unregistered consulting businesses and failed to submit required disclosure information.

"There's a lot of variation at the municipal and county level," said Emily Shaw, national policy manager at the Washington D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, of campaign-finance regulation.

Shaw said states that require electronic filing and Web posting of campaign-related documents tend to be more transparent than those that do not have those requirements. Minnesota, for example, recently passed a law requiring municipalities to post campaign-finance reports online, making it one of the strongest state municipal campaign-finance laws in the nation.

Many larger cities have implemented stringent campaign-finance laws as well.

In California, the city of Oakland now requires candidates to electronically file disclosure information. Oakland is also one of the few cities that place limits on political contributions, which the city council may update periodically to reflect cost-of-living increases, thanks to a 1999 city ordinance.

There, municipal candidates for mayor are allowed to take in a maximum of $100 from individuals and $400 from "broad-based" PACs if the candidate opts out of limiting total spending to $405,000. By contrast, candidates who agree to keep their expenditures to less than $405,000 may collect donations of $700 from private persons and $1,400 from PACs.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board was created in 1988 after several political corruption scandals. A nonpartisan, independent agency, the board provides matching public funds to candidates who adhere to strict contribution and spending limits and a full audit of campaign finances.

Who's in charge of minding the store in Mississippi's local elections remains a huge question mark. The State Integrity Investigation, a project of several government transparency and accountability organizations that collect data from state-government beat reporters, recently gave Mississippi high marks for having the sixth lowest corruption risk in the nation. That is mainly the result of such factors as having a strong state auditor and insurance commissioner, both of whom are elected in Mississippi, unlike in some other states.

However, Mississippi is noticeably weak when it comes to regulating how much money can pour into political campaigns and the ease with which citizens can see what their government is up to.

The State Integrity Investigation gave Mississippi a D+ on public access to information and an F for political finance laws. Mississippi did especially poorly on granting public access to information, thanks to the state's weak Public Records Act, which makes many public documents available, but has allowed agencies to charge exorbitant fees for producing the information. 
 In the event an agency denies a request, the requester can either appeal to the state Ethics Commission for a non-binding appeal or take it to court.

With respect to political financing, Mississippi has no limits on spending in state elections although reporting of expenditures over $200 is required.

Laws around municipal elections are murkier. The Mississippi secretary of state, as the chief elections official in the state, oversees that polling locations meet disability access requirements and, soon, that voter ID is being enforced.

However, the secretary of state does not have jurisdiction over municipal elections in Mississippi, leaving the job of enforcing the laws up to individual municipal clerks.

Gene Everitt, with the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, which advocates for campaign-finance reform said her organization "believes that the methods of financing political campaigns should ensure the public's right to know, combat corruption and undue influence, enable candidates to compete more equitably for public office and allow maximum citizen participation in the political process."

"This position is applicable to all federal campaigns for public office—presidential and congressional primaries as well as general elections. It also may be applied to state and local campaigns," Everitt told the Jackson Free Press.

As for the need for stronger campaign-finance regulations, Everitt cites Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the U.S. League of Women Voters: "In the end, the only reliable response to a flood of money in our elections is a flood of voters at the polls, each voter armed with the kind of reliable, unbiased information that the League provides."

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