Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Columbus Dispatch. May 3, 2022.

Editorial: Saggy pants and campaign finance

There are some laws and ordinances that are never enforced.

For example, in Oxford there is a local ordinance that says you cannot cheer at an Ole Miss football game unless there is a reason to. In Winona, it is still illegal to honk a car horn because it may spook a horse. There is also a state law that prohibits atheists from holding elected offices. In Mississippi, cattle rustling is punishable by hanging.

Closer to home, the Columbus city council passed an ordinance in 2002 to make wearing saggy pants an offense punishable by a fine up to $250.

Campaign finance laws in Mississippi are sadly other good examples of unenforced laws.

In this year’s session, the Mississippi legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that would transfer responsibility for assessing and collecting fines for violations of the state’s campaign finance law to the Secretary of State’s office. In 2017, the legislature transferred that authority to the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

In making the argument for returning that authority to the Secretary of State’s office, legislators noted that since 2017, candidates found to have violated campaign finance law have failed to pay more than $100,000 in fines. Returning that role to the Secretary of State’s office seems entirely logical, since that office is in charge of state elections.

The legislation not only had the support of Secretary of State Michael Watson, but Ethics Commissioner Tom Hood. The measure passed the Senate, 51-0 and the House by a 117-2 vote.

Yet despite that support, Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed the bill. In a brief statement, Reeves said only that he was opposed to giving the authority to collect fines to an office run by an elected official. The Ethics commission is an appointed body. Reeves apparently believes an elected official might be compromised in enforcing campaign finance laws.

It should be noted that the failure to property enforce campaign finances is not a recent development. Even when that authority rested with the Secretary of State’s office — prior to 2017 — there appeared to be little serious enforcement. In 2015, then State Auditor Stacey Pickering was accused of using campaign donations to purchase an RV, buy his daughter a car and replace the garage door on his home. The FBI investigated those claims, but Pickering was never charged, mainly because the state’s campaign finance laws did not explicitly prohibit using campaign funds for personal expenses, a practice that was eventually banned in 2018 — with a caveat. To this day, campaign donations raised prior to 2018 can still be used for personal expenses.

The issues surrounding campaign finance laws go beyond that, however. Candidates at both the local and state level routinely turn in incomplete reports or fail to meet reporting deadlines. The campaign finance reports for those running for statewide office can be found on the Secretary of State’s website, but the only way to review local candidates’ finance reports is to go to the circuit clerk’s office. A bill to require those reports to be published online died in committee in 2017, which has typically been the fate of most campaign reform bills.

As a result of these unenforced laws, filing complete campaign finance reports in a timely fashion is a matter of choice.

For a candidate, skirting campaign finance laws continues to be no more dangerous than honking a car horn in Winona.

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Greenwood Commonwealth. April 29, 2022.

Editorial: Statistics Defend Dept. Of Health

When the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center complained recently to federal authorities that Mississippi has not done enough to fight the COVID-19 pandemic’s oversized impact on minority communities, the state Department of Health was ready with a strong response.

The complaint claimed that Mississippi and various public and private organizations received more than $15 billion in federal money for the COVID-19 response, “yet the state has continued to provide a discriminatory program, resulting in disproportionate rates of sickness, hospitalization, and death in Black, Indigenous, and brown communities.”

Mississippi Today quoted Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, who acknowledged racial disparities in COVID-19 cases at the beginning of the pandemic. But he said the state Department of Health worked hard to fix that.

“Although the state encountered numerous challenges to advancing the equity mission — including early vaccine access, trust issues, and technological barriers to vaccine appointments — a statewide coalition of agency, faith, medical and community leaders was able to deliver much-needed information, vaccines and PPE to minority populations across the state,” Dobbs said.

Another Mississippi-based website, Y’all Politics, cited information from the Department of Health that indicates Dobbs is correct.

The numbers say 62% of Black residents in Mississippi received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while only 54% of whites did. The gap was similar for residents who received a second dose: 56% of Black residents and 49% of whites.

It is certainly fair to note that one reason the white vaccination percentages were low is that a significant number of people decided they weren’t getting the shots or wearing a mask — period, end of story. But it’s no great stretch to suspect that some Black residents made the same decision and simply weren’t as vocal about it.

Other data from the state Department of Health also supports Dobbs.

Through April 12, Mississippi reported 704,000 COVID-19 infections (almost 25% of the population). Of that number, 406,000 patients, or 58%, were white, while 249,000, or 35%, were Black.

As for COVID-19 deaths, there have been 12,170 in Mississippi. Of these, 7,159, or 59%, were white, and 4,550, or 37%, were Black.

These numbers square closely to the 2020 census count for Mississippi, which said 56% of residents were white and 37% were Black.

Other figures may bolster the civil rights groups’ complaint. But the most important numbers — infections and deaths — say that in terms of race, neither the pandemic nor the state discriminated.

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