Mississippi Lawmakers Receive Thousands of Lobbyists’ Gifts for Colleges | State government

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JACKSON • Mississippi public university lobbyists handed out packages of $ 500 football and basketball tickets, took tabs on $ 150 per plate dinners, and handed out goodies like golf shirts and a display case. football helmet to influential lawmakers.

From 2019 to this year’s legislative session, lobbyists at six of Mississippi’s eight public universities handed out nearly $ 100,000 in gifts to lawmakers and other officials, according to a Daily Journal review of lobbying records. More than half of that total was free tickets to sporting events, with free meals also covering a large portion. All expenses are legal under state law.

That makes public universities – which say private foundations largely cover their lobbying costs – among the biggest expenses of any lobbying interest group on Capitol Hill. Some argue that it’s time for Mississippi to follow the lead of other states that have ruled over freebies from lobbyists. Others wonder if lobbying efforts are working as budgets remain unpredictable and tuition fees continue to rise.

“There is a fine line between a bribe and a gift,” said Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who called for more transparency and restrictions on lobbying in the state. He said he was not suggesting that gifts from lobbyists be considered bribes, but that they “can be very influential.”

Lawmakers get thousands of dollars in bills, meals

Senator Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth, chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. She received 39 gifts worth a total of $ 5,752 – the most Northeast Mississippi lawmakers since 2019.

The documents included a package of tickets of $ 2,220 for last year’s Ole Miss football game against the University of Alabama and $ 550 in tickets for the 2019 football game against the University of Arkansas. . Parks, an Ole Miss graduate, also received a $ 132 dinner last year and another meal with her husband worth $ 98 per plate, both paid for by lobbyists at the university.

Parks did not respond to Daily Journal requests for comment.

Gifts from academic lobbyists to NEMS lawmakers

Mississippi public university lobbyists have legally inundated state lawmakers with thousands of dollars in free giveaways, such as ticket packages to expensive football games and dinner parties. These expenses have led to calls for reform. This graph shows the amount and number of freebies given to northeast Mississippi lawmakers for college lobbyists.

Last name Amount Number of gifts
Rita Potts Parks $ 5,752.01 39
Nick bath $ 2,150 16
Chris Brown $ 1,600 4
Mac Huddleston $ 1,038.57 22
Tracy arnold $ 801.81 3
Sam creekmore $ 731.50 9
Jody Steverson $ 428.82 7
Nicole boyd $ 333.30 ten
Neil whaley $ 306.68 8
Shane Aguirre $ 270.82 4
Donnie Bell $ 218.38 6
Steve massengill $ 204.68 3
Bart williams $ 203.29 5
Daniel sparks $ 193.41 8
Randy Boyd $ 157.64 6
Chad McMahan $ 154.41 5
Rickey thompson $ 62.62 4
Angela Turner Ford $ 57.49 4
Bryan baking sheet $ 53.61 1
Kathy chism $ 37.07 2
John faulkner $ 35.76 1
Ben suber $ 19.24 3
Lester Charpentier $ 19.24 3
Jerry turner $ 15.46 1
Jon Lancaster $ 1.81 1

The chosen one who received the largest sum of gifts was Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, who received 72 payments worth $ 8,091. Beckett is chairman of the Elections Committee and sits on the Appropriations Committee, but is not on the House Higher Education Committee.

Beckett, an Ole Miss graduate, explained that he holds a membership for the school’s football and baseball teams, but often ends up sitting down with other college officials and lawmakers. in the university skybox or other designated seats. He said that means he’s counted as receiving lots of free tickets, often valued at $ 100 or more each.

“They have to let me know that I used their tickets and not mine,” said Beckett, who added that he was close to university lobbyist Perry Sansing, with whom he attended university.

Beckett also received a number of gifts from the State of Mississippi and the Southern Miss.

“I don’t favor one university over the other because someone gave me a ticket somewhere, I can tell you that,” Beckett said.

Ole Miss officials did not respond to a request for comment.

MSU, USM do not provide details of gifts

In many cases, what university lobbyists have given is unclear. Reports for the state of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi did not include descriptions of more than 750 gifts given to lawmakers and officials, just their values.

The value of the gifts ranged from $ 1 to $ 190 and totaled over $ 29,000.

Lobbyists from other companies and groups also sometimes fail to describe what they buy for elected officials in their public reports.

This lack of transparency appears to violate Mississippi Lobbying Law, which states that reports must include a description of the gifts “in sufficient detail so that the nature of the transfer is clear.”

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office, which collects and publishes the lobbying materials, said officials were not aware of the issue of unlabeled gifts until the Daily Journal asked the question, but “we will definitely consider the question”.

Chad Driskell, lobbyist and vice president of external affairs for Southern Miss, said all unlabeled gifts from her university were either free sports tickets or meals, adding that the university was “obviously” not paying any money. cash payments to elected officials.

Mississippi state officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Giving gifts to college is nothing new

University of Mississippi lobbyists who win and eat lawmakers and hand out free tickets is not a new phenomenon, and these expenses are not unique to higher education lobbying efforts.

From 2015 to 2018, they distributed $ 276,000 in freebies, according to previous reports from Clarion Ledger. Notable giveaways during this period included $ 174 Ruth’s Chris Steak House dinners, sports memorabilia valued at $ 376, and tickets valued at $ 13,000 provided to lawmakers for the 2016 Sugar Bowl. .

But it’s unclear how much universities have gotten out of their lobbying efforts, which they say are mostly funded by private foundation funds.

Statutory appropriations for schools have fluctuated up and down in recent years, as have other agencies. Meanwhile, tuition fees have continued to rise.

Schools often compete for project funding by borrowing under the Legislative Bonds Bill. This year, universities secured more than $ 85 million in loans for projects such as upgrading dormitories, upgrading classrooms and equipping a new dining hall.

Other States Pass “No Cup of Coffee” Laws

Lobbying laws across the country vary widely. Some states like Mississippi have no restrictions on giveaways, as long as they don’t directly influence official actions. Some states place a cap on the amount an official can get from a lobbyist. And a growing number of states have banned freebies altogether, known as coffee cup ban laws, in an effort to reduce the amount of money flowing through politics.

John Reeves, a Jackson attorney and long-time former lawmaker, helped push through existing state regulations on lobbying and public reporting requirements in the 1990s. These changes helped rule over some of the bigger giveaways, he said, like luxury travel and rent-paying lobbyists from lawmakers. Reeves and Beckett have also mentioned in the past lawmakers using a lobbyist’s credit card to purchase their own dinners or other items as they please.

Reeves said more reforms are needed.

“It just doesn’t look good,” he said of gifts and meals. “The image of a supporter (of the legislation) buying a steak for someone the day before the vote, and then the person votes that way, is bad.”

Reeves proposed a two-pronged solution. The legislature should pass a bill without a cup of coffee, he said. But at the same time, they are expected to increase their salary or per diem rate for the days they are in session, which currently stand at $ 23,500 and $ 151 per day respectively. He said it would ensure the average Mississippian could afford to hold public office without lobbyists’ free meals and gifts.

“We need to move away from lobbyists at the national level, at the state level, at the local level, providing anything of value to any member who can vote on their issue,” Reeves said.

McDaniel, who has unsuccessfully pushed for his own lobbying reforms in recent years, agrees. He said expensive gifts and meals “send the wrong signal to ordinary Mississippians,” who cannot afford such luxuries.

McDaniel supports a law without a cup of coffee. Another approach, he said, could be to add another layer of transparency – requiring lobbying reports to be posted on each lawmaker’s biography page, “right next to their committee assignments.” But McDaniel is also realistic about whether his coworkers will want to cut back on the free stuff they get.

“I think it has about the same chances as term limits,” he said of lobbying reforms.

His past efforts never managed to get out of the committee.

JACKSON • Mississippi politicians and candidates are required by law to file campaign finance reports, which reveal who gives them money…

LUC RAMSETH is a Jackson-based reporter covering state government for the Daily Journal. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.



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