- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Speaker Philip Gunn took a campaign finance bill by the hand and escorted it through the Mississippi House Wednesday, a year after his top lieutenants mugged a similar measure.

Representatives voted 102-13 to pass House Bill 479 and send it to the Senate for more work. It would impose restrictions on the now-largely unregulated world of Mississippi campaign spending for all elected officials, aiming to block candidates from using campaign contributions to subsidize their lifestyle or build a retirement nest egg.

The move comes after 2016 reports by The Associated Press and The Clarion-Ledger showed officials were spending money on clothes, cars and boots, with some withdrawing large sums at retirement for personal use. Last year House members defeated a bill proposing restrictions late in the session on an unrecorded voice vote.

Gunn wrote the bill and assigned it to the Rules Committee. He made an unusual appearance in a committee meeting Wednesday, hours after the bill was introduced, to offer amendments.

“This is an item I have taken a personal interest in,” Gunn, R-Clinton, told reporters after the committee advanced the bill. “The issue has been raised as to the integrity of legislators. I want us not to do anything that appears to lack being truthful, being honest and lacking integrity.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves welcomed the action, noting the Senate passed a bill last year.

“I’m hopeful that today’s action improves the likelihood that a legislative compromise can be reached during this session,” Reeves said in a statement.

Gunn’s proposal would ban spending, and require officials to itemize credit card bills instead of paying a lump sum. Officials could still use campaign money to cover campaign and official expenses, including travel to party conventions and association meetings, car rental and accommodations for lawmakers in Jackson.

Gunn said the bill aims to allow lawmakers to pay expenses connected with legislative sessions that are in excess of what is covered by the $140-per-day expense payment they collect.

“It allows them to use the money in every capacity that they are called upon to serve as a legislator,” Gunn said.

Lawmakers would be allowed to pay a mortgage on a house or condominium in the Jackson area with campaign money.

The bill would take effect Jan. 1, 2018. Lawmakers rejected an amendment to make it effective immediately. Gunn said that fits with the calendar year reporting requirements of the campaign finance system, saying it could be difficult to start midyear. The House agreed to an amendment that allows lawmakers to keep donating campaign money to pay funeral expenses for constituents.

The Ethics Commission would be assigned to enforce the act and could fine violators $1,000, plus an amount equal to misspent campaign money. The assessment above the fine would be deposited in the state pension system.

The measure would also require political committees to file organization papers within 48 hours, not 10 days, and allow fines of up to $5,000 for violations.

Opponents said they worry about the power being given to the Ethics Commission. “This frightens me,” said Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel.

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

An AP review found that of 99 elected officials who had left office in previous years, as many as 25 may have pocketed more than $1,000 when they closed campaign accounts. At least five cashed out more than $50,000, including former Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, former Secretary of State Eric Clark and former Insurance Commissioner George Dale.

Mississippi is one of five states where withdrawals are legal so long as state and federal income taxes are paid.

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Online: House Bill 479: https://bit.ly/2j7HpmN

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .


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