STATE BADLY NEEDS LIMITS ON LOBBYING: Mississippi only needs to look to Louisiana for ideas

By STAFF REPORTS,

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 Clarion Ledger had a solid report this week about the way Mississippi universities court favor with key elected officials. 

Its analysis indicated that the eight universities, with most of the money coming from their privately funded foundations, spent nearly $2 million on lobbying in the past four years.

Lobbying is protected by the First Amendment, and since universities depend on the Legislature for a lot of money every year, there is an obvious need for the schools to make their cases to the people who decide the winners and losers in the budget process.

But the report indicates that 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.

Some states, such as Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee (all with large universities in the top-dollar Southeastern Conference, just like Mississippi) make it illegal for lobbyists to give gifts to public officials. The Clarion Ledger reported that Mississippi has no such limits. 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 played in the Sugar Bowl a few years ago?

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 of convincing lawmakers to build a nursing school here in Hattiesburg.

However, the work has its limits: State funding for universities is down 12 percent since 2016.

That, in fact, underscores the risk of having no restrictions on gifts to elected officials who decide how to spend millions of dollars. 

Southern Miss 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.