February 5, 2015 10:13:10 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi House members are rejecting new restrictions against Attorney General Jim Hood's ability to file lawsuits or hire outside lawyers.
The House voted 66-49 Wednesday to reject a House Bill 1201, which would require the governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state to approve the attorney general's filing of any lawsuit in which the state could win more than $250,000. House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, could bring the bill back up for more debate.
Hood is the only Democrat holding statewide office. While most Republicans supported the bill, 13 opposed it and three did not vote. Among Republicans voting no was House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson of Poplarville.
Baker said Hood's unfettered ability to bring lawsuits is improperly setting state policy, negatively affecting Mississippi, and robbing those who are sued.
"I personally feel that one office should not be dictating the public policy of the state of Mississippi. And you certainly should not be dictating the public policy by litigation," Baker said. "It's really just taxation by litigation."
Hood and supporters say House Bill 1201 would put unconstitutional restrictions on the attorney general's power.
"This bill is an unconstitutional invasion of the authority given to the attorney general to solely handle litigation on behalf of the state by the people in the Mississippi Constitution and confirmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court," Hood said in a statement.
Democrats on the floor Wednesday suggested the measure was a partisan attack on Hood. Baker had been rumored as a candidate for attorney general, but has instead filed for re-election in 2015.
"This may be the most rancid, politically motivated bill I've seen before this Legislature," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Lawsuits by attorneys general have been a long-festering issue in Mississippi politics, running back to when Hood's predecessor, Democratic Attorney General Mike Moore, sued the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, arousing the ire of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice even as Moore won millions for the state.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour -- who was a tobacco lobbyist in Washington during Mississippi's lawsuit against the industry -- used the tobacco money to help prop up the state budget during the recession. The payments from the tobacco lawsuit settlement are still being spent under the current Republican governor, Phil Bryant.
In 2012, Baker and other Republicans passed a bill limiting the share of a verdict that could go to private lawyers hired on contingency, normally capping payments at $50 million. The law requires the attorney general to appoint outside lawyers if he declines to represent an agency or if there is a "significant disagreement" with an agency head or elected official.
Hood has been involved in a high-profile investigation of Google, with the Internet giant suing him in federal court to toss out a wide-ranging subpoena that Hood issued last fall. The attorney general claims he's investigating possible violations of Mississippi consumer protection laws, while Google says federal law shields Internet services from much or all of what Hood is inquiring about.
"Those supporting this bill are doing the bidding of their corporate masters," Hood said. "Our office has brought in over $830 million for the taxpayers from corporate corruption over the past 11 years."
Tuesday, Hood announced that Mississippi would get $33 million as part of a national settlement with the Standard & Poor's credit rating agency over allegations that it knowingly inflated ratings of risky mortgage investments.
Online: House Bill 1201: http://bit.ly/1C1XKKQ .