Editor's Update - Filed 3/2/05 - Representative Diane Peranich's bill, House Bill 984, which is the focus of this article, died March 1, 2005 from inaction as a result of a set deadline according to the rules of the Legislature. At this point, it is uncertain if, at all, the bill can be revived.
GCN GUEST OPINION
Mississippi State Ethics Commission Opposes Openness and Accountability in Government Entities
By Royce Hignight - Special to GCN
Incredible as it may sound, the Mississippi State Ethics Commission is opposing ethics legislation that would require members of commissions and boards such as the Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC) to file a statement of economic interest with the State Ethics Commission, which is already required from many public officials. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent or at least expose conflicts of interest by those who expend public funds. The Ethics Commission wrote a letter to Senator Charlie Ross, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opposing the bill.
Mississippi State Representative Diane Peranich filed House Bill 984 to amend Section 25-4-25, Mississippi Code of 1972, to require Members And Governing Authorities Of Any County, Municipality Or Other Political Subdivision Of The State That Administer Public Funds To File Statements Of Economic Interest With The Mississippi Ethics Commission; And For Related Purposes. The bill passed in the House of Representatives. It has been sent to the Senate and is currently in review by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Charlie Ross.
HCDC WAS TRIGGER
Representative Peranich filed the bill in the wake of revelations that the former Executive Director of the much troubled Harrison County Development Commission (HCDC) received unknown amounts of payments from unidentified private sources, in addition to his very lucrative official pay, plus additional lucrative perks. The HCDC commissioners had no concern about the payments from private businessmen to the HCDC Director, a public official. In fact, the HCDC Commissioners gave it their stamp of approval by adopting a resolution accepting the practice. It was also claimed that the Mississippi State Ethics Commission approved of the practice.
Anyone who knows anything about public policy recognizes the inherent potential for conflicts on interest of such a practice. In fact, a Louisiana newspaper, which wrote an editorial about the HCDC’s Executive Director’s outside pay, stated, “Businessmen who give handouts to government officials may expect more for their money.” The editorial went on to say, “The most comical aspect of [the Executive Director’s] the double dipping is that it was declared legal by the Mississippi Ethics Commission. Whatever the secret of Mississippi’s recent success in attracting industry, it cannot have anything to do with a superior ethical code…”
Can one imagine being lectured by a Louisiana newspaper on ethics? It could only happen to a state like Mississippi, which is at the bottom of nearly every list of socio-economic measurements, except a recent study of corruption on which, Mississippi was number one. It is a lack of openness, disclosure, and accountability that is large part responsible for the sad state of affairs in Mississippi.
Representative Peranich’s bill is directly meant to insure disclosure and accountability in order to prevent conflicts of interest in agencies which spend millions of public dollars annually, such as HCDC and the Land Water and Timber Resources Board, that have far too little disclosure and accountability. Such government entities are not annually, routinely audited by the Mississippi Department of Audit or scrutinized by any state or law enforcement institutions.
The members are appointed and therefore, are unaccountable by the elective process. The officials who appoint the members tend to not hold their appointees accountable. Such entities tend to become accountable only to themselves, which opens the door for misapplication of public funds as was done in the Mississippi Beef Processors matter and HCDC. They often become “play pens,” for “special interest,” playing with public funds.
The Land, Water and Timber Resources Board is the Board which appears, according to press reports, to have thrown $54 million of public funds down a rat hole on the Mississippi Beef Processors plant matter. This is a prime example of what can and most often occurs when there is a lack of accountability for government entities which spend public funds. In the aftermath of the fiasco, the State Auditor made certain common sense and “good business” recommendations to prevent such fiascos. It is a little late to be issuing suggestions after $54 million of taxpayer funds has already been lost.
PERANICH'S BILL EXTENDS ACCOUNTABILITY
Section 25-4-1 states, “The Legislature hereby declares it essential to the proper operation of democratic government that public officials and employees be independent and impartial; that governmental decisions and policy be made in the proper channels of the governmental structure; that public office not be used for private gain other than the remuneration provided by law; that there by public confidence in the integrity of government; and that public officials be assisted in determinations of conflicts of interest.
House Bill 984 is meant to extend this same legislative intent of Section 25-4-1 to all other boards and commissions, which have become numerous over the years and which expend public funds. These public entities have heretofore not been held accountable to the standards of Section 25-4-1, to the detriment of the public interest.
Section 25-4-25 already requires that: Elected officials; Members of local school boards that administer public funds; Executive directors of state agencies, presidents and trustees of all state-supported colleges, universities and junior colleges; Members of any state board, commission or agency, including the Mississippi Ethics Commission, charged with the administration or expenditure of public funds are all required to file a statement of economic interest. If there is sufficient reason to hold these governmental entities, which expend pubic funds to the standards of Section 25-4-1, then why should not all of the other commissions and boards, which expend public funds, be held to the same standards?
Yet, by letter dated February 7, 2005, from Scott Rankin, Executive Director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, to The Honorable Charlie Ross, State Senator, the Ethics Commission went on record as opposing House Bill 984. This is not a surprising stand by the Ethics Commission, a commission that in my experience and opinion has been more attuned to protecting the political status quo rather than the public interest. In addition, at least two of the Ethics Commission members have been associated with organizations intertwined or connected with the HCDC.
Rankin’s letter stated, “I have certain concerns with House Bill 984. First, I am concerned about the initial cost that will be associated with compiling the names, addresses and related information of all appointed officials of the varied boards in each of the 82 counties, 296 municipalities and the numerous individual political subdivisions of the State in light of the current funding constraints.”
The above is not a reason to oppose House Bill 984, but it is an excuse to oppose the Bill. Even if the numbers mentioned by Rankin were as gigantic as he makes it out to be, instead of being a reason not to bring these public officials in under Section 25-4-25, this would be the most compelling reason to extend Section 25-4-25 to those public officials.
ETHICS COMMISSION OPPOSITION A "RED HERRING"
Concerning Rankin’s argument about “current funding constraints,” that is just as much of a “red herring,” as the gigantic numbers with which the Ethics Commission would have to deal. All the Ethics Commission would have to do is set up the process to have these statements of economic interest filed electronically on the internet. The list would be automatically set up with very minimal personnel involvement. If Federal Income taxes can be filed electronically with the Internal Revenue Service, then surely statements of economic interest can be filed electronically with the State Ethics Commission. If the State Ethics Commission was being competently administered, this process would have already been set up to handle the currently required filings.
Rankin’s letter furnished a second reason for being against House Bill 984. He stated, “Secondly, I feel that a more complete review of the duties of the varied local boards is necessary before requiring the local boards’ appointed officials to file statements of economic interest with the Ethics Commission.” Again, this is another “red herring.” This is not a sensible reason; it is simply another excuse. Why is a “more complete review of the duties of the varied local boards necessary?” He does not say. Is it because there is no sensible reason? All that it is necessary to know about these Boards and Commissions is, do they expend public funds?
Rankin’s letter states, “Lastly, I am concerned with the wording and placement of the amending language in House Bill 984. It seems to me that sub-section (e) of Code Section 25-4-25 is the more appropriate location for the amending language and the wording of the amending language could be clearer and more precise.” This again, is a “red herring.” It is simply a matter of opinion and really doesn’t make any difference one way or the other.
WHAT KEEPS MISSISSIPPI ON THE BOTTOM
It is an undisputed fact that Mississippi is at the bottom of almost all socio-economic measurements. One of the foremost reasons is bad government due to a lack of accountability in government entities, wherein a large percentage of government resources are wasted.
Unfortunately, these wastes of public resources are rarely uncovered due to the weak governmental institutions of this state (See an article by Royce Hignight titled, “Mississippi’s Open Wound” on the GulfCoastNews Website Archives) and a weak news media. It is only when there is a calamitous event, such as happened with the Mississippi Beef Processors plant fiasco or a rare event where a group of citizens with the expertise and resources, causes exposure, such as happened with the HCDC, that such situations come to light. The best thing that can be done is to prevent such situations from developing in the first place. An informed citizenry can and will take action to prevent or right such wrongs if it has access to information which is what House Bill 984 helps to accomplish. This in turn leads to good government.
It is well documented that good government does more for meaningful economic development that will do more to get the state off the bottom of the list of socio-economic measurements than all the money that unaccountable government entities can spend. There is no meaningful reason the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate should not support House Bill 984, and a lot of reasons they should, beginning with helping to create good government.