Mississippi Legislature

Republican Reps. Stacey Wilkes of Picayune, left, and Dana McLean of Columbus, center, confer with Becky Currie of Brookhaven as they review a number of possible bills in House chamber at the Capitol during the first day of the 2021 Mississippi Legislature.

Mississippi has some of the weakest laws in the nation governing lobbyist spending on lawmakers. There are no limits on how much lobbyists can spend on gifts for lawmakers. Lobbyists have to file reports, but those reports are largely ignored, evidenced by the fact that so many of them are incomplete or incorrectly filled out. And lawmakers are not required to report any gifts they receive.

About the only rules are that cash gifts are not allowed, and no gift can be given in direct exchange for a vote or action.

But let’s be real. Lobbyists shower lawmakers with gifts to influence their votes on issues important to the lobbyists’ clients. The entire reason for the lobbying industry is to help influence lawmakers to vote certain ways. That is not a bad thing. It is how our system works. But our system has been corrupted by the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are being spent every year to lavish key state lawmakers with freebies – all of which are designed to curry favor with legislators in hopes they will vote certain ways.

The Daily Journal recently reviewed lobbyist spending on behalf of public universities in Mississippi. Over the last two years, lobbyists for universities gave out almost $100,000 in gifts to select lawmakers. These gifts included tickets to sporting events, high-dollar dinners and sporting apparel. In some cases, we don’t know what the money was spent on because lobbyists failed to provide that information, even though it is required.

And while public universities represent one of the largest groups in lobbyist spending, they are by far not alone. Public entities and private industries spend millions of dollars lobbying state lawmakers. It is a grotesque aspect of our political system, but it goes largely unseen by the general public.

But this needs to change. Several states have outlawed any spending by lobbyists on free gifts for lawmakers, and Mississippi should follow that lead. At the very least, lobbyist spending should be limited to food and beverage at a capped amount and in group settings that are open to a large number of lawmakers. This would end the private dinners and booze-filled nights at upscale bars in Jackson that are so popular during the legislative session.

After all, most lawmakers make at least $40,000 annually for their legislative work, which is considered part-time, with the bulk of it taking place during the three-month session each year. That should be sufficient to cover their costs. If it’s not, then lawmakers can adjust their compensation as part of lobbying reform.

But perhaps the best argument for lobbying reform comes from a lawmaker who called our reporting a hit piece.

“I can tell you that none of my colleagues can be bought for 6k,” Sen. Joel Carter, R-Gulfport, said on Facebook.

If the spending is not doing any good, as Carter says, then there is no need for it. It’s just a perversion of our political system. And when you look at how budgets for public universities have fared no better than other state budgets – while tuition costs have been raised to cover shortfalls and expenses – then you have to question the wisdom of throwing good money after bad.

Policy should be decided on merits, not on lobbyist spending. It is time for the Legislature to do a little self-governance and pass strict lobbying reform that ends the free giveaways that are corrupting our political system.

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