Here’s a tip for Mississippi lawmakers when considering limits on gifts to public officials: If something’s illegal in let-the-good-times-roll Louisiana, it probably should be here, too.
The Jackson Clarion Ledger had a solid report this past week about the way Mississippi universities court favor with key elected officials. Its analysis indicated that seven of the eight universities spent nearly $2 million on lobbying in the past four years, with most of the money coming from their privately funded foundations. Mississippi Valley State, the smallest and poorest of the state universities, did not report spending any money on lobbying efforts.
Obviously the schools need to make their cases to the people in the Legislature who decide the winners and losers in the budget process. But the report indicates that most of the universities are doing a lot more than speaking to legislators at the Capitol or during a reception.
They’re also spending a lot more than some other lobbyists: Last year lawmakers received more than $58,000 in gifts from universities, which is three times more than the combined gifts from Entergy, Mississippi Power Co. and rural electric co-ops.
The gifts — including tickets to football games and expensive meals — are legal. They also are a pretty sweet deal for legislators, statewide officials, their spouses and friends.
Two lawmakers whose districts include Leflore and Carroll counties are among the top recipients, according to the Jackson newspaper, and demonstrate that these freebies are doled out in a bipartisan fashion. Rep. Kevin Horan, D-Grenada, received almost $6,900 in tickets, meals and gifts from 2015 to 2018, the fourth most in the Legislature. Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, came in 15th at more than $4,700 worth.
In some states, such as Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee, such gifts would be illegal. Mississippi has no such restrictions. Maybe it’s time to consider some.
A New York ethics professor told the Jackson newspaper that the law should at least forbid public officials from asking for gifts — such as football tickets — because it is basically misusing the office for personal gain. Receiving such a gift, he added, “undermines both the reality and the perception of integrity in government.”
The professor is right. But it will come as no surprise that lawmakers like the unique perks that universities can provide. Who wouldn’t like a $1,500 array of freebies, which House Speaker Philip Gunn received when Ole Miss’ football team played in the Sugar Bowl in 2016?
The universities aim most of their lobbying efforts at members of the Legislature’s higher-education and budget-writing committees. It can help: The House Ways and Means chairman said the University of Southern Mississippi’s private lobbying firm did a good job a few years ago of convincing lawmakers to build a nursing school in Hattiesburg. USM may have deserved a nursing school on the merits, and the same can be said for many other projects that universities want from the state. But sooner or later (if it has not happened already), there is going to be a lobbyist who exceeds whatever norms exist in order to win favor for a client.
Lawmakers have the power to prevent such an occurrence, and they should use it.