OXFORD — Thanks to Luke Ramseth for reminding me of an old story, probably apocryphal, which I’ll relate later in this column.
Ramseth, the capitol correspondent for the Tupelo Daily Journal, recently reviewed documents that show how Mississippi politicians continue to personally profit from campaign funds, despite reforms passed by the Legislature four years ago.
As Ramseth’s article noted:
“Lawmakers passed campaign finance reforms in 2017 following embarrassing reports by the Clarion Ledger that showed how officials had spent donations on everything from children’s parties, to cars, to an $800 pair of cowboy boots. Yet a grandfather clause inserted into the legislation essentially let the unregulated spending continue — as long as politicians used money raised before 2018.
“Millions of dollars’ worth of this old campaign money is still out there, according to annual reports recently posted on the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. Politicians are required to report pre-2018 money separately from their newer campaign funds, assuming they want to take advantage of the lax spending rules.
“The politician with the most pre-2018 campaign cash is Gov. Tate Reeves, with $1.9 million — money he could legally take for his own personal use at any time. He reported earning $13,384 in interest from the account last year, and did not report any expenditures except on taxes and an accountant.
“Former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat who challenged Reeves in the 2019 gubernatorial race, still maintains an active campaign finance account. He compensated himself more than $100,000 from the pre-2018 money last year, filings show.”
Hood still has $252,240 in his old campaign account, which can be spent at his discretion, according to Ramseth’s report.
But three state lawmakers, all Republicans, have more in their pre-2018 accounts than Hood.
The top three legislator nest eggs are $578,957; $392,694; and $295,464.
As Ramseth wrote: “Most states and the federal government ban politicians from using campaign money for personal reasons. And if they have excess funds when they leave office, they must donate it to charity or another candidate. But in Mississippi, politicians can keep it.”
This brings me to my story.
In the middle of the 20th century, Mississippi sheriffs were also county tax collectors. They could not immediately succeed themselves. By the 1970s, the tax collector duties were transferred to either a separate office or to the tax assessor, depending on the size of the county, and the sheriff was allowed to run for re-election.
Before the change, sheriffs in the larger counties could earn a fine salary in the dual roles.
Whiskey was illegal statewide at the time, but it was tolerated in some counties where a large segment of the population wanted it.
Sheriffs who were predisposed to looking the other way at technically illegal alcohol sales could add to their incomes with contributions from bootleggers.
The story goes that after one man was elected sheriff, he told friends that “when I leave office, people may call me a SOB, but they won’t call me a poor SOB.”
No one here is calling any of our current officeholders an SOB. But from the looks of some of those campaign filings, you can’t call them poor either.
One former state senator who had a 16-year career in the Legislature pocketed $12,016 that was left over in his campaign account. He told the Daily Journal he had pondered whether it was the right call to keep his remaining campaign money and concluded it was fair, given the work he had put in as an elected official.
“When you’re serving in the Mississippi state Senate, if you get out and work and try to help the people, you spend a whole lot more money than you take in,” he explained. “That was my thinking on it. When you’re going somewhere several times a week (as a senator) … you’re spending a lot of money that you wouldn’t spend if you were not in office.”
I’ll bet that’s the thinking of most all of them. But there’s a big difference in $12,016 and $578,957.
• Charles M. Dunagin is the retired editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb. He lives in Oxford.