- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi politicians will face new limits next year on how they can use campaign cash, under an ethics law the Legislature passed after media investigations revealed spending on everything from mortgage payments to cowboy boots.

Gov. Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2689 on Tuesday, and it becomes law Jan. 1.

The new law bans legislators and other elected officials from spending the money for any non-campaign purpose, and enumerates a list of forbidden expenditures, including housing expenses, funerals, clothing, automobiles, tuition, personal travel and undocumented loans.

The proposal came after The Associated Press and The Clarion-Ledger analyzed the campaign cash reports of state politicians last year. The AP review found as many as 25 officials may have pocketed more than $1,000 when they left office, and at least five of them cashed out more than $50,000 from campaign accounts.

Before this law, Mississippi was one of only five states that still allowed elected officials to pocket campaign money for personal use during or after their careers, so this spending has been legal, assuming the politicians paid income taxes on cash they took for personal use.

But ethics experts say the practice makes campaign contributions perilously close to bribes.

A bill that would have imposed limits died in the House last year after some top Republicans questioned it. This year, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, made changes a priority.

Candidates closing campaign committees will be required to return the money to donors or give it to another political committee or candidate, to a nonprofit group, or to the state.

The Ethics Commission will enforce the act, empowered to fine violators $1,000 plus an amount equal to misspent campaign money. The new law also shifts from the secretary of state to the Ethics Commission the power to fine or seek legal orders against candidates and committees that don’t file campaign finance reports.

Because some officials have paid expenses with credit cards and showed the card payment without giving details of items or services purchased, the new law also requires elected officials as well as candidates to itemize each expense.

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