Money is the mother's milk of political campaigns, and in recent years the amount spent in Mississippi elections has soared dramatically.
Some want to place limits on campaign contributions, saying that's the only way to get the financial spiral under control. Others argue that restricting contributions violates the First Amendment right of free speech, since giving money to a candidate is a political statement.
Whatever the disagreements on funding limits, both sides ought to be able to agree on the importance of the public knowing who's giving what to whom.
The fundamental purpose of campaign finance reporting laws is to open the book on major contributions so that voters know the origins of a candidate's support. Implicit in big donations is the expectation of attention and responsiveness to the donor's interests. The public should know to whom a candidate is potentially obligated, and disclosure laws are the only sure way for that to happen.
Yet certain interest groups have gotten away with anonymity in Mississippi campaigns while spending hundreds of thousands of dollars touting a candidate's virtues or, in the case of the 2003 elections, attacking him with negative ads.
New Attorney General Jim Hood estimates that about $800,000 was spent in attack ads against him last year, and the funding sources of those ads have never been publicly revealed. That's a blight on Mississippi's political system and a slap in the face to every Mississippi voter.
Groups skirt the disclosure law by not dealing directly with political parties or candidates' campaigns and by not specifically asking viewers to vote for or against any candidate. Yet anyone who saw the ads slamming Hood last year would have no doubt of their intention to help his opponent.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent huge sums of money to influence the 2000 judicial elections in Mississippi, but survived a court challenge demanding that it reveal how much and the sources.
Those loopholes undermine the intent of campaign finance laws and need to be closed. Legislation supported by Hood and Secretary of State Eric Clark would require this “soft money” to be reported.
Clark and Hood also propose to clarify the law to prevent occurrences such as Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck's four-year concealment of the source of a $500,000 loan to her 1999 campaign. Noted trial attorney Richard Scruggs eventually revealed that he made the loan when questions about it arose last summer and Tuck refused to name the source.
It makes no sense that the source of any direct contribution over $200 must be disclosed, but that a sum of money equal to nearly one-third of Tuck's campaign receipts in 1999 could go unreported.
The issue is not whether loans are appropriate in campaigns; it's the right of voters to know the source and make their own assessment of what that says about the candidate's obligations.
The huge cost of campaigns is rapidly making the ability to raise money the chief qualification for election to public office, not only at the state but increasingly at the district and local level as well. The least the law should require is public disclosure of where the money is coming from.
The Legislature should act this session to plug the loopholes and give the voters – and the candidates – access to this vital political information.
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