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Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood

AG Hood hints at lawsuit over budget woes

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

“I just want them to follow what they wrote,” said Hood, who met with the media Monday to explain official opinions written by his office detailing that the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act passed during the 2016 legislative session does not provide as much money for the state budget as the legislative leaders said it would when it passed.

Official opinions issued by the office of the Attorney General do not carry the weight of law, but protect public officials who adhere to the rulings from liability in court proceedings. 

Current state Fiscal Officer Kevin Upchurch, who is responsible for disbursing funds to state agencies based on the budget passed by the Legislature, has said he would adhere to the AG’s opinions. But Upchurch is retiring July 1 – at the start of a new fiscal year – and his replacement has not yet been named by Gov. Phil Bryant. Bryant has only said he would take into account the attorney general’s opinion when trying to determine the complexities of the new law.

Hood’s opinion creates more uncertainty for a state budgeting process that has been rocked with sluggish revenue collections and a $56 million accounting error that the legislative leadership blamed on the staff.

The Budget Transparency and Simplification Act was supposed to provide additional funds – nearly $190 million – to help offset the budget woes facing the leadership by sweeping into the state general fund the fees and assessments 16 agencies receive to administer specific programs.

The Legislature then said it would provide those agencies general fund revenue to administer those programs. Many agencies said the Legislature did not provide those funds.

Hood said the way the legislation is crafted it does not actually transfer at least $72 million of those funds to the general fund.

Hood said the legislation was hastily crafted to “cover up” the massive budget woes facing the state, caused primarily by large tax cuts given in recent years.

He said the legislative leaders’ efforts are, in part, to prove to bond rating agencies that the state’s finances are sound.

Referring to the state’s financial situation, Hood said, “If it was a corporation, I would be trying to charge them with securities fraud.”

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Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov Tate Reeves, a supporter of the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act, said Hood was only trying to preserve special funds his agency receives.

“Obama’s Attorney General in Mississippi takes the same approach Obama’s Attorney General in Washington takes – ignore the law if it doesn’t meet your political views,” Hipp said.  “The attorney general wants to double dip his spending, ignores the need for taxpayers’ accountability and transparency and has instructed bureaucrats to ignore the law.”

Hood said the issue is not one of partisanship, but one of actually following the law as it was passed by the Legislature. He did cite a crime victims compensation pool administered by his office as one where under the law the funds could not be swept even though the legislative leadership wants to. He said the language in the bill does not repeal current law, meaning the fund created by assessments levied on convicted felons to compensate crime victims could not be depleted.

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