When people are in public office, you hope they ask themselves one basic question.

Am I here to serve the public, or am I here to serve myself?

The answer should guide them on any ethical question, such as whether to accept or, worse, seek gifts from the institutions they govern.

The tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of football tickets and other freebies that Mississippi legislators receive every year from the state’s universities may be legal, but that’s only because this state has a history of inviting back-scratching between those who are in power and those who are entreating them.

Many other states don’t allow such gifting because they understand that even if they don’t believe their public officials can be purchased so easily, they don’t want to give the public any appearance that they might be.

Mississippi lawmakers, however, don’t tend to worry too much about appearances. They have carved out a whole special set of rules for themselves — from extra pension plans to extra exemptions from the state’s sunshine laws — so that they don’t have to follow the rules they expect others to.

The Clarion Ledger did a great public service by recently exposing how much Mississippi universities spend on lobbying, including how much they shell out in freebies, mostly to lawmakers, on whom the universities depend for their annual appropriations.

The Jackson newspaper tabulated that from 2015 to 2018, the universities and their lobbyists provided public officials with more than $276,000 in tickets to sporting events and other freebies.

Two of the bigger beneficiaries, it turns out, represent this area and come from both sides of the political aisle: Rep. Kevin Horan, the Democrat from Grenada, and Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, the Republican from Winona.

Horan came in fourth on the recipient list with $6,877 in gifts, predominately free tickets to football games at his alma mater, Ole Miss. Chassananiol wasn’t too far behind at No. 15 with $4,723 worth of gifts, again mostly free football tickets to watch the Rebels.

Chassaniol didn’t even bother to try to explain herself, failing to return several calls this newspaper placed to her. At least Horan gave it a try, though not very convincingly.

He said all those free tickets, including more than $2,000 worth the year Ole Miss made it all the way to the Sugar Bowl, were really not gifts. Besides, he said, tailgating at The Grove or hanging out at the skyboxes at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is a valuable way to gain “interaction with members of the university I don’t normally see.”

Funny, though, how that interaction for Horan is only valuable on football Saturdays at his alma mater. There’s nothing in the record to show that he sought tickets during those four years to attend a game at Mississippi State, Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Valley State or any of the other universities. Guess the quality of the conversation at those campuses is just not the same.

Of course, it’s obvious what’s going on.

These are not fact-finding missions that lawmakers are on when they hit up the universities for free tickets. They just assume this is a perk to which they and their family and friends are entitled, and which the universities are either happy to fulfill or afraid not to.

The set-up is reminiscent of another ethically suspect practice the Clarion Ledger and others in the press uncovered three years ago, when lawmakers and other public officials were spending campaign contributions on clothes, groceries, trips, cars, apartments, home improvements, payments to their own companies and to themselves along with other personal expenses.

Chassaniol did some of that, too, using tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to pay herself mileage, put family members on the payroll and take trips to Alaska,  Chicago and the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 2017, embarrassed by the disclosures, the Legislature passed a law to ban using campaign funds for personal expenses and to require officeholders to itemize most all of their campaign spending so to make it harder to hide what they were doing.

Lawmakers should be just as embarrassed about mooching tickets from the universities.

The whole point is that those who serve in the Legislature or any other public office should be scrupulous about not giving the impression that they are using their public office for private gain. Lawmakers should also steer clear of giving any person or entity the feeling that their vote can be influenced by the gifts they receive.

Both Horan and Chassaniol don’t seem to get that point.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.

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