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Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood

House reverses course, votes to limit AG’s ability to file lawsuits

By BOBBY HARRISON

House leaders were able to reverse enough votes Wednesday to pass legislation that could prevent Mississippi’s attorney general from pursuing lawsuits like the 1990s tobacco litigation that resulted in a settlement of more than $4 billion for state coffers.

The legislation passed 63-56 Wednesday. The legislation had been defeated 58-60 last week, but was held on a motion to reconsider. On Wednesday, the Republican leadership of the House changed enough votes to pass the proposal that will now be considered by the Senate.

The bill would require the attorney general to garner approval from the Outside Counsel Oversight Commission, consisting of the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state, before hiring outside counsel to pursue litigation.

Some in the Legislature, particularly the Republican leadership in recent years, have taken issue with lawsuits filed by Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, with the aid of private attorneys. Hood, and his predecessor, Mike Moore, have maintained their office was not sufficiently staffed to pursue damages for the state against large corporations. They have employed outside attorneys who receive payment only if they win the lawsuit.

They have pursued a litany of cases, such as against pharmaceutical companies that have been found to have overcharged the state for drugs for Medicaid patients.

House Judiciary A Chair Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said the bill is needed to prevent the attorney general from making policy through litigation.

“The attorney general acts as the client and the lawyer all rolled up in one,” Baker has said. He added, “One individual should not have the right to make those decisions.”

Hood has said the Mississippi Constitution gives him the sole authority to pursue such lawsuits.

In a statement, Hood said, “Obviously, House leadership and proponents of this bill bow down to their corporate masters, and it’s unfortunate that this bill’s supporters put such pressure on conscientious Republican legislators to change their vote. I am grateful for the bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans that saw this bill for what it is – an unconstitutional, political power grab that puts the interests of corporations ahead of Mississippi citizens.”

Since 2004, according to information compiled by Hood’s office, he has recouped $3.26 billion in lawsuit settlement funds for the state. Much of that money might not have been recovered if Baker’s bill had been law.

At the time Hood filed the lawsuits against the drug companies, for instance, then-Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration expressed opposition. And in the 1990s, then-Gov. Kirk Fordice tried to prevent the lawsuit against the tobacco companies to recoup government funds spent treating smoking-related illnesses.

Those tobacco settlement funds – slated to be more than $4 billion over 25 years – have helped fund the state’s financially challenged Medicaid program. The state is scheduled to receive payments from the tobacco companies as long as they remain in business.

And other lawsuit funds have helped in recent years to balance the state budget at a time revenue collections have been sluggish.

Baker said the lawsuits also have resulted in millions in fees for private attorneys.

— bobby.harrison@journalinc.com

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