Secretary of State Michael Watson
Secretary of State Michael Watson outlined his campaign finance reform package he’s shared with lawmakers. Changes could be coming in the 2024 session.
Last week, Secretary of State Michael Watson (R) previewed some of his legislative priorities after lawmakers gaveled in for the 2024 Legislative session. Included among the list is a comprehensive campaign finance reform initiative.
“I’m a big proponent of making sure that people understand from where it is the money is coming, how’s it being used, who it’s going to and the timeline,” said Watson.
Secretary Watson said he was approached several years ago by members of the Legislature as to whether or not they could house a digital filing system for everyone within the SOS office. At the time, it was not feasible with a paper system, but moving toward a digital system could make it a possibility.
“Number one, we need a new system here in our state. It will be costly, but we put that in our budget, and we will be asking the Legislature to help us with those funds. Number two, I think you saw last year, there were a lot of questions about enforcement mechanisms and whether or not it was being prosecuted,” said Watson.
Watson’s reference to the 2023 statewide election cycle comes as various candidates, including Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann and Governor Tate Reeves, questioned the legality of their opponents’ reported donations.
Currently, candidates on the local level are often required to file reports with their Circuit Clerk’s office. Paper filings would be labor intensive. Electronic filing would streamline the process.
Watson’s recommendation includes provisions for all campaign finance reports to be filed electronically through a SOS platform. Those who do not promptly file will be fined after 30 days of the deadline. A suggestion for fine collections for violators would be to do so in a tiered approach to include a percentage of what was received or expended. These fines would be an increase to what is already in statute.
Secretary Watson’s plan would streamline the reporting process and essentially run the majority of the filings through the Secretary of State’s office in an attempt at consolidation. The only exceptions would be appeals to the Ethics Commission, and if fines were not paid, transferring action to the Attorney General’s office. He said there have been violations flagged by his office and sent to the Attorney General but they have not been prosecuted at this time.
The reform package would also focus on regulations pertaining to Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions. Watson’s recommendation would seek to prohibit PAC to PAC contributions, an action he said is used to “wash” donations for a candidate. Specifically, candidates or their representatives could not knowingly establish or use more than one political committee for the purpose of supporting a candidate in an election.
“It’s real easy, a PAC can’t give to another PAC and then funnel it into a campaign of someone they’re trying to give money to, to start with. Just go straight to them,” said Watson.
He said this is something that has been happening in Mississippi particularly when a federal PAC tries to give money to a candidate in the state by funneling the funds through a state PAC.
However, Watson’s reforms would not prohibit participation in a PAC that supports a slate of candidates or joint fundraising efforts. The new regulations could also require that the treasurer for a PAC or candidate committee reside in Mississippi.
Secretary Watson said there is the potential for criminal penalties, but he is hesitant to go past administrative barriers.
According to the Secretary of State’s plan, all administrative fines would be levied in house, with the Mississippi Ethics Commission having the authority to hear an appeal. The proposal would add an administrative fine for failure to adhere to laws regarding “paid for” language on materials, to ensure such disclosures are visible.
Additionally, the changes would shorten the grace period from ten days to five days and scale the fines up based on number of times fined in a certain period of time. All of these fines could be expanded to county and municipal counties with no grace period for pre-election reporting. Currently, that grace period extends beyond the election.
Secretary Watson said his office has been in contact with the Lt. Governor’s staff and new Speaker Jason White. He said those conversations have indicated it is a priority to address reform issues in both the House and Senate.
“I do think we are going to have something robust come forward. We are going to have ours introduced and the pieces that come out of that and are melded in with the Lt. Governor as well as the House will be a complete package, I hope,” said Watson.
Lt. Governor Hosemann said he had seen the Secretary’s reform package and reviewed several items requested.
“He sent me a list of about 20 or 30 things that he thought. I did review that list. Some of them I thought were well thought out, others I didn’t think we should do,” said Hosemann, himself a former Secretary of State at the Stennis Capitol Press Forum on Monday.
Hosemann indicated he had also been formulating his own list of reform items, adding that the Legislature welcomes Secretary Watson’s input as well as others who are interested in campaign finance reform.