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Report: Universities lobby Mississippi lawmakers with tickets, meals

Is this wrong?

Posted: Apr 11, 2019 1:17 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When Ole Miss played in the 2016 Sugar Bowl, more than a dozen Mississippi public officials were in the stands, free of charge, to watch the Rebels crush Oklahoma State.

Lobbyists doled out nearly $13,000 in free tickets for lawmakers and other state officials that day. The lobbyists weren't working for a large corporation or a private industry group, but for the University of Mississippi

Ole Miss is not alone in its largesse to public officials. Seven of Mississippi's eight public universities and their private foundations spent nearly $2 million on lobbying over the past four years, a Clarion Ledger analysis found. That amount includes spending for staff lobbyists and private lobbying firms, plus entertaining lawmakers. Mississippi Valley State did not file lobbying reports.

The analysis found:

— Universities provided more than $276,000 combined in gifts to officials over four years. Including receptions, the total is nearly $350,000.

— Nearly 40 officials received $2,000 or more in gifts and services. The top five lawmakers received between $6,600 and $8,500 apiece.

— Gifts to lawmakers included Ruth's Chris Steak House meals at $174 per plate, sports memorabilia worth $376 and single-game ticket packages valued at $1,500.

— Despite these lobbying efforts, university funding has dropped 12 percent since 2016.

Public universities lavish money on public officials in hopes of getting more public dollars. And they spend more than most other groups seeking influence in the Capitol. Last year, the state's three largest universities showered officials with $58,000 in freebies — about three times more than Mississippi Power, Entergy and electric cooperative lobbyists, combined.

In Mississippi it's legal. The state's lack of restrictions on gifts means elected officials, their families and friends can benefit from unlimited freebies without worry.

Campus officials said they are more likely to invite chairmen of key committees to games or meals to explain a particular higher education issue, or to seek funding for specific projects. Many of reported expenditures reflect this.

Republican Sen. Terry Burton of Newton, the former second-in-command in the Senate, received the most gifts of any official, valued at more than $8,500.

Most of the top recipients among legislators serve on higher education and budget-writing committees.

Statewide elected officials get perks, too. Over the past four years, Treasurer Lynn Fitch received about $3,300 in giveaways, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves more than $2,300, and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann about $2,100. Gov. Phil Bryant received less than $1,000.

Staffers also cash in on free tickets and meals. Chiefs of staff for the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker got more than $1,600 in handouts combined since 2015.

Lawmakers can request tickets. And if a lobbyist knows the official will want to attend several games, they sometimes offer a season pass.

"If a lawmaker requests tickets, I will do everything I can to accommodate them," said Perry Sansing, Ole Miss' staff government affairs liaison.

Mark Davies, a Fordham University law professor and ethics expert, said this arrangement is problematic. "Any good ethics law," he said, "would absolutely prohibit any request for any gift, regardless of size, because that would constitute a misuse of office for private gain."

In some states — including Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee — it's illegal for lobbyists to give any gifts to public officials. But Mississippi places no limits on gift-giving.

"The public perception of an official receiving a gift is horrible and undermines both the reality and the perception of integrity in government," Davies said.

Despite spending on lawmakers, state universities don't appear to fare much better than other agencies at budget time. Total state appropriations for universities increased slightly in fiscal 2016, to $344 million, but since plummeted 12 percent, to about $302 million last year.

Universities have blamed anemic state funding for tuition increases — including an average 4-percent increase this year for attending the state's eight public universities.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, a Columbus Republican, said universities compete for special projects, which lawmakers typically fund each year through borrowing. He said some universities "couldn't function" without lobbyists.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Smith said. "If Southern Miss didn't have (private lobbying firm) Capitol Resources, I'm not sure what they would do.... I don't know that they would have gotten their nursing school built a few years ago if it weren't for Capitol Resources."

School officials say most lobbying expenses are covered by private funds from foundations and alumni associations. Yet, some public funds are also spent, the Clarion Ledger found.

"We think it's a bad idea for universities to engage in lobbying elected officials, and using tickets to sporting events, parking passes, or meals," said Jon Pritchett, CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative group. "Despite efforts by universities to segregate sources of money, it's too easy for taxpayer dollars to be deployed in the act of lobbying."

House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, said universities activities are "perfectly appropriate." Gunn received almost $6,000 from the universities since 2015, including a $1,500 Sugar Bowl ticket package and a $50 signed football at the game.

"They have every right to lobby legislators just like every other organization — public, private or other state agency — all of which invite legislators to attend functions," he said, adding he brings family and friends to games.

Mississippi State University spokesman Sid Salter said there's value in having lawmakers visit campus.

"I've had other reporters ask, 'Do those discussions really take place in the second quarter of a football game?'" Salter said. "The surprising answer to that is yes . It's an effective means to have some time with the people who are making those decisions."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 482902

Reported Deaths: 9425
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison33063488
Hinds31021589
DeSoto30610358
Jackson23687348
Rankin21340370
Lee14909220
Madison14166271
Jones13404227
Forrest13160240
Lauderdale11601305
Lowndes10443176
Lamar10214130
Pearl River9098221
Lafayette8241137
Hancock7514112
Washington7102150
Oktibbeha6964124
Monroe6514164
Neshoba6475201
Warren6464164
Pontotoc630393
Panola6250126
Marshall6126123
Bolivar6115144
Union574186
Pike5613136
Alcorn537290
Lincoln5303131
George471472
Scott459196
Leflore4476140
Prentiss446779
Tippah446480
Itawamba4444100
Adams4416116
Tate4394101
Simpson4335112
Wayne433066
Copiah431787
Yazoo423386
Covington415792
Sunflower4148104
Marion4099104
Leake397586
Coahoma3957100
Newton370875
Grenada3556104
Stone350860
Tishomingo336289
Attala325387
Jasper314162
Winston304691
Clay296473
Chickasaw287065
Clarke282190
Calhoun266141
Holmes262187
Smith250649
Yalobusha221047
Tallahatchie220450
Walthall211058
Greene209045
Lawrence206833
Perry199953
Amite198452
Webster196542
Noxubee178939
Montgomery172454
Jefferson Davis168342
Carroll162137
Tunica153334
Benton142535
Kemper138640
Choctaw127026
Claiborne126834
Humphreys126637
Franklin116728
Quitman103926
Wilkinson101936
Jefferson91333
Sharkey63020
Issaquena1926
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 789054

Reported Deaths: 14022
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1115991765
Mobile708511234
Madison49865633
Shelby36274315
Baldwin36242495
Tuscaloosa33931548
Montgomery33190678
Lee22680220
Calhoun21211410
Morgan19816335
Etowah19300462
Marshall17680274
Houston16823386
St. Clair15442305
Cullman14602258
Limestone14581188
Elmore14480264
Lauderdale13520281
Talladega12958236
DeKalb12199237
Walker10588330
Blount9720157
Autauga9667137
Jackson9385158
Coffee8882175
Dale8609173
Colbert8534184
Tallapoosa6673181
Escambia6591121
Covington6452167
Chilton6385144
Russell607255
Franklin5795101
Chambers5416134
Marion4800120
Dallas4705189
Clarke463279
Pike462397
Geneva4413117
Winston425895
Lawrence4117108
Bibb409381
Barbour347270
Marengo326285
Monroe320053
Butler318290
Randolph305956
Pickens305274
Henry301858
Hale292685
Cherokee289855
Fayette279673
Washington245448
Crenshaw238470
Cleburne235851
Clay228565
Macon220158
Lamar197743
Conecuh182046
Lowndes170758
Coosa170235
Wilcox159736
Bullock149243
Perry136537
Sumter124536
Greene121443
Choctaw73427
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