Unless Gov. Phil Bryant exercises his veto power, Mississippi is about to take a huge step backward in letting voters know who is bankrolling whom in elections.
The Legislature has passed a measure, House Bill 1205, that will open the door to political payoffs that will be impossible to ferret out.
To understand the mischief of HB 1205, which the Republican majorities in both chambers pushed through the Legislature, one needs to understand how the current campaign finance laws in Mississippi work.
The state has had the attitude that it’s not going to limit campaign spending and it’s going to put very few limits on political contributions (the only one in current law is a $1,000 limit per year on corporate donations to individual candidates and party committees). It is, however, going to require full and complete disclosure of this spending and this giving. If a political committee — defined as any group trying to influence the action of voters — raises or spends more than $200, it has to disclose its donors. It makes no difference what the federal tax status of that group is.
The underlying principle behind the current laws is a sound one. It says Mississippi is not going to try to restrict political speech by enacting arbitrary spending and contribution limits, but, in exchange for such hands-off treatment, it is going to require transparency.
HB 1205 would cloak a lot of this giving and spending. It says 501(c) groups would not have to disclose their donors — not just legitimate charities but so-called “social welfare organizations,” which are a front for political committees. The Koch brothers or George Soros, for example, could give millions of dollars to a newly established group to help elect Mississippi’s next governor, and no one but probably the beneficiary candidate and his insiders would know who is buying the ads to try to make that happen. It’s a formula not only for keeping voters uninformed but also for hiding who is really pulling an elected official’s strings.
Since this initiative is being pushed by Republican lawmakers, chances are it’s some major GOP donors who are seeking this secrecy. If they are successful, it will bring to Mississippi elections the so-called “dark money” that is corrupting federal contests.
For Bryant to veto this measure would mean probably turning his back on some people who have given to him in the past. The voters’ only hope is that his good instincts when it comes to openness in government will prevail, and he will say this is not a favor he is going to return.