House passes bill limiting Hood’s power to hire attorneys

JACKSON — The Republican-led Mississippi House voted 59-55 yesterday to pass a bill limiting the powers of the Democratic attorney general.

Proponents say agency heads need to be able to hire outside lawyers without Attorney General Jim Hood’s approval when they have conflicts with Hood. The bill would also require all outside legal contracts be filed with a state board, and require the board to approve contracts worth more than $100,000.

It’s the second time in a week that the House has debated the proposal. The bill considered last week failed because it violated parliamentary rules.

House Judiciary A Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said the bill keeps Hood from imposing his views on other agencies. He and other Republicans cited Hood’s failure to sue over the federal health care law as one motivation, although Republicans have long complained that Hood gives legal work to Democratic-leaning lawyers who support Hood.

“The fact that Jim Hood elected to dictate the policy of the state of Mississippi by doing so is going to be fixed by this bill,” Baker said.

Hood contends the bill is an unconstitutional dilution of his power as the state’s chief legal officer and has threatened to sue.

“Our office has a 100 percent approval rating among state agencies we represent,” Hood said in a statement after the vote. “Obviously, this is not about the quality of our lawyers. It is an unconstitutional attempt by the Republican leaders in the House to use state agencies to intervene and try to stop our office from pursuing claims against big drug companies, Wall Street bankers and BP.”

Democrats largely supported Hood, although a few crossed party lines to vote with Republicans or sat out votes.

“Everybody knows this bill is here to gut the authority of the attorney general,” said Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville. “They want this bill to destroy the attorney general.”

Baker denied any personal motive.

“I would not have brought you a bill just to poke a stick in someone’s eye,” he said.

The bill considered yesterday had some changes from the earlier version. For example, it now requires the five-member Personal Services Contract Review Board to approve outside legal contracts worth more than $100,000, instead of just receiving and publicly posting them. It also requires all such contracts, no matter the price, to go to the board. Finally, it allows Hood time to respond to an official’s written reasons for hiring an outside lawyer.

Baker said he made the changes following objections raised last week by Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, and others.

Democrats were little mollified by the changes, though, noting that all five members of the board are appointed by the governor. They offered 16 unsuccessful amendments. They tried to exclude the state Medicaid program, Public Employees Retirement System and Department of Transportation from the program.

Brown tried to exclude agencies from hiring legislators or law firms that legislators work for, an indirect shot at House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. Democrats earlier released a 2010 letter from a member of Gunn’s Ridgeland law firm threatening to intervene in a drug price lawsuit on behalf of Medicaid. That intervention never happened. Gunn has said he’s not a partner in the firm and had no knowledge of the letter.

Also rejected was an effort to limit hourly rates for outside attorneys to $65 an hour.

“If they’re paying $65 an hour now and they end up paying $150 later, the taxpayers are going to end up paying more for that service,” said Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello.

Baker said that’s not true, because officials would have to juggle money within their own budget to pay lawyers.

“I doubt seriously that a lawyer at $65 an hour would be competent,” Baker said.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, warned Democrats that the Senate could be even more punitive, saying Baker had culled some of the more restrictive proposals.

“The attorney general got re-elected but so did a lot of us and the people want a new direction,” Smith said.

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