Attorney General Jim Hood discusses his legislative agenda.

Attorney General Jim Hood wants the Legislature to put more money into the Department of Mental Health as well as two of the special funds his office oversees.

During a press conference Thursday morning, Hood advocated for a variety of topics he would like to see discussed during this year’s legislative session, ranging from establishing an Internet use tax to campaign-finance reform to early voting.

Mental-health funding has been in sharp focus since the end of the 2016 legislative session, when the Department of Mental Health saw its funding cut by $8.3 million, or 4.4 percent, prompting the agency to eliminate more than 100 beds at Mississippi State Hospital, East Mississippi State Hospital and South Mississippi State Hospital.

State budget writers have said 2016 cuts to the department and others were necessary to balance the books in the face of less than expected revenues. In a June interview with Mississippi Today, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves specifically questioned the efficacy of some mental-health department program costs.

Referring to the Department of Mental Health, Reeves said: “(W)e spent $3.8 million on a program at Whitfield and East Mississippi (hospitals)—a program that’s needed, by the way—and we have no clue and they can’t tell me if it was successful or not. They can’t tell me if it helped one patient.”

In addition to funding and budget concerns, the department is in the midst of a federal lawsuit filed in August by the U.S. Department of Justice, which says the state discriminates against adults with mental illness over relying on “unnecessary institutionalization,” in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit was long-expected after the Justice Department issued a scathing investigative report in December 2011.

“I’ve been to the Legislature, advised them way before these suits were coming and encouraged them to spend more money,” Hood said. “We don’t have enough beds to house those people.”

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court said that people with disabilities have a constitutional right to live in their communities rather than be warehoused in mental institutions. The ruling was supposed to prompt states to move towards expanding community mental-health services and away from institutionalization.

Mississippi did not immediately follow that guidance.

The Justice Department wrote in 2011: “In spite of recent commitments to build community capacity and better serve persons with disabilities in integrated community settings, the State has done little to change the institutional status quo. In fact, Mississippi is the only jurisdiction in the country that serves more than 25 percent of the people with (developmental disabilities) in its system in large state institutions.”

Hood referenced HB 479, a campaign finance bill that passed in the House Wednesday, questioning whether the legislation had a strong enough enforcement mechanism. In 2016, one version of an ill-fated campaign finance reform bill gave the attorney general and secretary of state enforcement oversight.

“Write a law that you can enforce,” Hood said, adding that the entity in charge needs to be able to act upon the the rules included in a bill if it passes.

HB 479 allows candidates and officeholders the right to consult the state Ethics Commission on the legality of campaign fundraising and spending.

Hood also stressed additional revenue is necessary to keep the Victims’ Compensation Fund and Law Enforcement Officers and Firefighters Disability Benefits Fund in service. The disability fund pays out roughly $350,000 annually to injured firefighters and law enforcement officers, he said.

He said his office, which oversees both funds, receives some federal grants and fees from convicts, but both are in jeopardy because of a law passed in 2016 that diverted special funds into the state’s general fund.

Hood said the state would also benefit from the implementation of an Internet use tax and purchasing notifications, which would levy sales tax and require a business to disclose the amount of online purchases by Mississippi residents.

Contributing: Adam Ganucheau

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

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