Secretary of State candidates vow sweeping campaign finance reform, enforcement

Published 12:26 pm Saturday, July 29, 2023

NESHOBA COUNTY FAIR — Incumbent Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson on Thursday vowed to reform Mississippi’s lax campaign finance and lobbying reporting and nearly nonexistent enforcement of laws if reelected.

He also vowed in his Neshoba County Fair speech to do away with politicians’ “legacy” campaign finance accounts — money still held in accounts under pre-2018 rules that allowed politicians to spend campaign money however they want and pocket the money when they leave office.

Watson’s Democratic opponent, Shuwaski Young, on Thursday at the fair also called for campaign finance reform, as did incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann on Wednesday.

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This statewide election cycle has seen several claims of campaign finance law or reporting requirement violations. It has also shown what appears to be a reluctance by Attorney General Lynn Fitch – the only statewide officer with clear authority to enforce campaign finance laws – to address or investigate complaints.

Mississippi’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws and reporting requirements are weak, and contained in a piecemealed patchwork of confusing – some conflicting – laws passed over many years. The secretary of state’s office and Ethics Commission have for years said they lack enforcement or investigative authority. Most often, campaign finance violations go unchecked, leaving the state political system open to the corrosive influence of special interest money.

Mississippi’s system also lacks transparency. For instance, unlike all neighboring states, Mississippi’s campaign finance reports are not electronically searchable. They are PDF files, and some politicians still submit hand-written reports. One in recent years submitted hers in calligraphy.

Both Watson and Young have vowed to have electronically submitted and searchable campaign finance records.

Watson on Thursday said he is not seeking more responsibility or power for his office, but that he would take enforcement authority if no one else will, and lawmakers approve. He appeared to take a shot at incumbent AG Fitch in his statements.

“I want to be very clear here: I do not want more responsibility and I’m not seeking more power,” Watson said. “But when people do not do their jobs, I will stand in the gap for Mississippians.”

Watson called politicians’ grandfathered campaign accounts from pre-2018 “retirement accounts, golden nest eggs” and said they should be abolished. Mississippi’s old system of allowing politicians to pocket campaign money was called “legalized bribery.” Lawmakers passed some reforms in 2017 after two years of arguing, but grandfathered money held separately in old accounts, which allows politicians to keep the money when they leave office. Gov. Tate Reeves has such a legacy account, which contains about $1.9 million, which he could keep after he leaves office.

Last year, Reeves vetoed an effort by lawmakers to give the secretary of state’s office authority to levy civil penalties against candidates or political committees that fail to file campaign finance reports.

Young on Thursday noted that the portal for candidates to file campaign finance reports online is currently broken – during the busy statewide election season.

“We need a campaign finance system we can count on,” Young said.  He also called for numerous election reforms to make voting and registration easier.

Hosemann, who has filed campaign finance complaints against his lieutenant governor’s race opponent Chris McDaniel that appear to be going unaddressed by Fitch, on Wednesday said lawmakers will likely tackle reform if such laws are going unenforced.