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BOBBY HARRISON: Transparency act ignites probable first salvo of the 2019 statewide campaign

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

Don’t look now, but it appears that Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only elected Democrat, is gearing up to run for governor.

Democrats have long wanted Hood to run for governor. His recent actions have many believing he will finally take that leap. Perhaps so, or perhaps he is only voicing his opinion about what he believes are bad policies.

Hood’s criticism hit a crescendo last week with official opinions his office issued on the controversial Budget Transparency and Simplification Act passed by the 2016 Legislature as the glue to hold together a shaky budget that appears to be built on both hope and denial.

The Act does a number of different things, but what the AG’s opinions primarily  tackle is the section of the law that “sweeps into the general fund” revenue garnered through fees and assessments levied to fund specific programs, such as a fine on convicted felons for a victims compensation fund.

Legislative leadership has plugged nearly $190 million from the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act into the state budget. Legislative leaders say they provided the agencies that had “special funds” from fees and assessments “swept in the general fund” revenue to offset the loss of special funds. But they said the agencies are getting their money in a more efficient and transparent matter.

Many agency heads have come forward to say there is nothing simple or transparent about the new law and that they are going to have to absorb major cuts. Many agencies, such as Mental Health and the Department of Health, already have announced major cuts and layoffs.

Hood has chimed in saying that not only is the legislation poorly written, but that it is crafted in a manner that is unconstitutional. And without getting into the weeds of lawyering, the official opinions from his office contend the legislation does not say what legislative leaders are now telling agency heads to do.

And, Hood says that pesky issue of separation of powers prevents legislators from – after the fact – telling agency heads that we should have said this instead of that in the law.

Legislative leaders, particularly Lt Gov. Tate Reeves, said Hood’s opinions are nothing more than an effort by “bureaucrats,” including Hood, to try to protect the fiefdoms, built on those aforementioned special funds.

Perhaps so, but some of those expressing concerns include duly elected Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, a Republican, and respected state Health Officer Mary Currier. Bryant even expressed concerns about the complexity of the proposal when signing it into law.

At any rate, the  Budget  Transparency and Simplification Act could be the first salvo in the 2019 gubernatorial election.

While there is speculation that Hood, who is in his fourth term as attorney general  and has been a top target for Republicans throughout his tenure, will run for governor, there is no doubt that Reeves will run

Reeves has had his eye on the Governor’s Mansion since before he was first sworn in as lieutenant governor in January 2012. The budget and the Transparency and Simplification Act, developed by his Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, are tied to Reeves so he has an interest in trying to defend them against the assaults from Hood.

Reeves has long billed himself “as the grown up in the room” when it comes to budget and fiscal issues.

But now Reeves faces budget woes thanks to sluggish revenue collections  and questions about the legislation that is the linchpin of that budget.

No doubt, in the coming months the lieutenant governor will need to put those budgeting skills, which have proved to be formidable in the past,  to work.

A gubernatorial election could hang in the balance.

» Bobby Harrison is the Capitol Reporter. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.

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