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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: 308111

Reported Deaths: 7122
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20826248
Hinds19910411
Harrison17510302
Rankin13334276
Jackson13118243
Madison9908210
Lee9871170
Jones8297160
Forrest7525147
Lauderdale7198237
Lowndes6272144
Lamar611084
Lafayette6039117
Washington5281133
Bolivar4772129
Oktibbeha455897
Panola4445103
Pearl River4428141
Warren4284118
Marshall4276100
Pontotoc416972
Monroe4061132
Union403975
Neshoba3994176
Lincoln3871109
Hancock372885
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329589
Tate322782
Pike3188104
Scott310872
Yazoo304468
Alcorn298065
Itawamba297177
Copiah293265
Coahoma289778
Simpson288284
Tippah284868
Prentiss275759
Marion266079
Leake261373
Wayne261341
Grenada255384
Covington254780
Adams246082
Newton245161
George238147
Winston225981
Tishomingo222267
Jasper219748
Attala213473
Chickasaw205057
Holmes186872
Clay182854
Stone179331
Clarke177076
Tallahatchie175540
Calhoun163531
Yalobusha159236
Smith158834
Walthall130643
Greene129433
Lawrence126423
Noxubee126233
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120926
Amite120141
Webster113532
Jefferson Davis105432
Tunica102725
Claiborne101330
Benton97325
Kemper95428
Humphreys94332
Franklin82123
Quitman78916
Choctaw73417
Wilkinson64928
Jefferson64828
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 520503

Reported Deaths: 10722
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson754091487
Mobile38938798
Madison33898495
Tuscaloosa25297443
Montgomery23992567
Shelby23124239
Baldwin20652300
Lee15541165
Calhoun14301311
Morgan14145270
Etowah13665346
Marshall11967219
Houston10381278
Elmore10001200
Limestone9822147
Cullman9481188
St. Clair9435234
Lauderdale9223227
DeKalb8748181
Talladega8071171
Walker7100275
Jackson6762110
Autauga6734103
Blount6497135
Colbert6210130
Coffee5404112
Dale4766110
Russell429038
Franklin419982
Chilton4087109
Covington4056114
Tallapoosa3898146
Escambia388574
Dallas3531149
Chambers3503122
Clarke346560
Marion3066100
Pike305876
Lawrence295395
Winston272572
Bibb256459
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens233059
Barbour225255
Hale218775
Butler212566
Fayette209260
Henry187744
Cherokee182144
Randolph176941
Monroe172040
Washington164238
Macon154848
Clay149555
Crenshaw149257
Cleburne146241
Lamar139334
Lowndes136553
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109128
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99328
Greene91034
Choctaw58724
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