Campaign finance reform victory

It’s not as strict a prohibition as we’d like to see against using campaign donations on expenses other than those directly related to running for public office.

Still, the campaign-finance reform bill that Mississippi lawmakers have sent to Gov. Phil Bryant for his signature will be a marked improvement over the corrupting arrangement under which the state has been operating.

Among the reform measure’s best elements:

• Using campaign donations to enhance a politician’s lifestyle will largely be banned. No more buying clothes, food and cars or taking vacations with your supporters’ money.

• Campaign war chests will no longer be disguised retirement accounts. When public officials leave office, they won’t be able to move the balance into their own bank accounts. They will instead have to give the money to another political committee or candidate, to a nonprofit group, to the state — or give it back to the donors.

• Most credit card expenses will have to be itemized. This will stop the practice of trying to dodge accountability by funneling expenses through credit cards and only reporting the lump-sum payments, as officials from both sides of the political aisle have done.

• The Ethics Commission will take over enforcement from the secretary of state’s office, which has shown itself either unwilling or unable to police questionable expenditures. Better to have an all-appointed agency responsible for enforcement than an elected official who could be conflicted by his own fund-raising activities and spending of campaign funds.

One serious flaw in the reform measure is that it allows lawmakers and other public officials to use campaign donations to go on “fact-finding” junkets and to pay for living expenses while on the job that exceed what is covered by the taxpayer-provided allowances.

That loophole is almost certainly going to be abused, and it’s going to give the Ethics Commission some fits in interpreting what’s a legitimate “official” expense and what’s not.

Another unfortunate loophole is the provision that exempts from the new rules what officials presently have on hand and what they collect until January 1. We could see some state officials nearing retirement going on a fund-raising binge for the rest of this non-election year.

Still, the new rules represent progress and should, if not eliminate legalized bribery, at least severely reduce it.

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