Campaign finance reform is a success

When Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed legislation this week to stop public officials from using campaign funds for personal expenses, he made a telling observation.

“I remember (The Clarion-Ledger) once asked me in an editorial board, Would you convert money from a campaign to your personal use? I said, ‘That’s against the law,’ because a lot of us thought it certainly was ... .”

Bryant has been raising money for campaigns, millions of dollars in all, for a quarter-century as he worked his way up the political ladder, from state representative to state auditor to lieutenant governor to governor. For almost half of his political life, during the time he served as state auditor, he was the person in charge of making sure elected officials didn’t convert public money to personal benefit. If anyone should have had a better than passing knowledge of what was legal and what wasn’t when it came to spending campaign donations, one would have thought Bryant would have.

Yet, he assumed wrongly that campaign funds in Mississippi couldn’t be spent on clothing, food, cars, housing and other like expenses that had nothing to do with running for office. He believed that doing so might get you locked up, because in the federal government and in most states it would.

Thanks however to the exposure created by the media, most notably the Jackson newspaper and The Associated Press, Bryant and others learned that Mississippi politicians, both in the Legislature and in several statewide positions, had been legally bribed for years with campaign donations that they used as supplemental income, retirement savings or both.

That exposure — and the public’s incredulity, like the governor’s, that this was going on — resulted in the legislation that Bryant signed.

The reforms contained in Senate Bill 2689 are not perfect. They don’t take effect soon enough, with implementation delayed until January 1 of next year, and they don’t apply to any money that’s been raised until that date. Still, the changes are meaningful and should curb some of the worst abuses, plus provide greater transparency by requiring politicians to itemize all their expenses above $200, including those put on credit cards.

There are undoubtedly still going to be loopholes, the biggest being one that allows elected officials to use campaign funds to pay for “official” duties. Still, the reforms are a major step in the right direction. They move Mississippi closer to what Bryant and a whole lot of others thought was already the law.

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