JACKSON • The way Mississippi holds its politicians accountable for skirting state campaign finance laws is convoluted with large gaps in the enforcement process. And it appears that won’t change anytime soon.
Gov. Tate Reeves recently vetoed legislation that would have transferred the power to levy fines against candidates who fail to file campaign finance reports on time from the state Ethics Commission to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office, which helps administer elections.
“The potential for abuse of power by the eight member Ethics Commission is far less when juxtaposed with a single elected official who could seek to unscrupulously weaponize the power to further his political ambitions,” Reeves wrote in his veto message.
Mississippi law requires candidates running for state office to list campaign donations and expenditures over $200 in a report with the Secretary of State’s office. But if candidates file that form late or don’t file it all, they could get slapped with a hefty fine.
The snag in the current process is that it forces three different state organizations – the Secretary of State’s office, the Attorney General’s office and the state Ethics Commission – to share responsibilities for issuing fines, leading to a confusing process.
This system has led to real money from candidates going uncollected. A Daily Journal analysis in 2021 found that Mississippi candidates owed nearly $150,000 in unpaid fines related to campaign finance reports.
Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, is the state’s chief elections administrator. He said in a statement that it was unfortunate the governor vetoed the legislation because the reform was needed to streamline the enforcement process.
“I believe we should return the penalty assessment power back to an elected official accountable to the public on Election Day, not an administrative body,” Watson said.
Within five days of a reporting deadline, Watson’s office compiles a list of those who have not filed, notifies them of their failure, and sends the list to the Ethics Commission.
The Ethics Commission only begins issuing fines on the 10th day after the report is due. An additional $50 fine is added per day the report is late, up to a maximum fee of $500. The commission can waive a fine if the person couldn’t file due to a severe health issue or similar unforeseeable problem. Fine payments are deposited into the state’s general fund.
The Ethics Commission is supposed to send the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office a list of people who have not paid their fines after 120 days, and the AG can file a lawsuit “to compel payment,” according to the law.
Tom Hood, the director of the state Ethics Commission, declined to comment on the governor's veto, but he told the Daily Journal last year that he had not sent the AG’s office a list of candidates recently because the commission voted to delay issued fines for violations during the pandemic.
It’s unclear if the commission has sent the AG’s office a recent list of candidates who have failed to file a report.
State lawmakers could vote to override the governor’s veto the next time they convene.