- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - At least 21 Mississippi lawmakers have been living in recreational vehicles on state property in a deal that works out to about $6 a night - an arrangement not available to the general public.

Calling themselves the “Camper Caucus,” they have been living in RVs or travel trailers parked at the Mississippi Fairgrounds, about a mile from the Capitol.

Lawmakers receive $140 a day from the state for living expenses. Those in the Camper Caucus are paying $175 a month at the fairgrounds for the four-month session. This includes the spot, electricity and water and sewerage.

The Clarion-Ledger (https://on.thec-l.com/1RmzcWk ) made multiple calls during several weeks, and fairgrounds staff said RV space rental is only available short-term during events such as the Dixie National Rodeo, and there is no monthly or long-term rate available to the public.

The standard rental rate for a fairgrounds camper spot for the public ranges from $20 to $50 a night, depending on the amount of electricity used, according to staff and fairgrounds publications.

The 2016 legislative session is scheduled to last 111 days, through April 24. That would break down to a cost of $6.30 a night for legislators who camp there for the session. Some note they typically only stay four nights a week, and they shut off their power, water and sewerage when they leave.

“We’re not getting a preferential rate,” said Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, who was described by colleagues as the go-to member to get the deal. Carpenter said it was approved by former Fair Commission executive director Billy Orr, then by current Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Carpenter said state coffers are receiving money they otherwise wouldn’t from empty RV spots in off seasons for events.

Hyde-Smith, who chairs the Fair Commission, and current Fair Director Rick Reno did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner John Campbell said he’s uncertain when or how lawmakers’ camping on state property began, but “I think they just trickled in” over at least the last couple of years. He initially said he didn’t know who negotiated or approved the deal or whether it was ratified by the Fair Commission but later said it was a decision by “management, not the commission.” He said he doubts Hyde-Smith was involved because, “like with a hotel, you would work with the events planner or someone on staff,” not with the head of the agency.

Campbell said the fair office was correct in telling the newspaper there is no set long-term rate for the public to camp at the downtown fairgrounds. But he said that’s likely because nobody has asked.

“There’s been nobody denied,” Campbell said. “If anybody wanted to come, we could negotiate an agreement.”

Campbell said fairgrounds managers and lawmakers negotiated terms “acceptable to both,” and he said it’s “a pretty good deal for both parties.”

Campbell said he doesn’t know how the $175 a month rate was set, but “It’s comparable to other places.”

When The Clarion-Ledger called five other Jackson-area RV and camper parks, none offered a comparable deal. Their monthly rates ranged from $325, which did not include electricity, to $395.

LeFleur’s Bluff, also state-owned property, quoted a rate of $389 a month but noted it doesn’t have sewer hookups. The park offers a rate of $292 a month for senior citizens.

The state auditor’s office would not comment on lawmakers, who set state agency budgets and policy, renting state property at a rate unavailable to the public.

Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood was out of the office and unavailable for comment last week.

State ethics regulations primarily are based on two provisions: Section 109 of the state constitution and a portion of state law.

State law says: “No public servant shall use his official position to obtain, or attempt to obtain, pecuniary benefit for himself other than that compensation provided for by law….”

The constitution says: “No public officer or member of the Legislature shall be interested, directly or indirectly, in any contract with the state … authorized by any law passed or order made by any board of which he may be or may have been a member..”

Reps. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, and Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, are both Camper Caucus campers. Both said they assumed they were getting a rate available to anyone. Hughes, a freshman, provided a copy of his $700 check paying for four months’ rental. DeLano said he has owned an RV for years and this is his third session at the fairgrounds. Before that, he said he stayed a couple of sessions at LeFleur’s Bluff.

Hughes said he had heard about lawmakers at the fairgrounds years ago from a former legislator, and he had a secretary at his business call and make his arrangements. With a reporter present, Hughes last week called the fairgrounds office on speaker phone identifying himself only as someone wanting to rent an RV spot. A woman put him on hold briefly to check, then returned and said, “It’s during events only,” and that spots weren’t available.

“Events only,” Hughes said. “I wonder if they’ve termed the Legislature as an event . I don’t want any special treatment or deals.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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