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Attorney General Jim Hood did not mince words Monday, suggesting the Legislature stop meddling in day-to-day operations of his office.
His comments ranged from the failure of the Legislature to appropriate money for his office — necessitating a special session to correct that oversight — to legislators’ efforts to set up a review panel over his office and complaining about how long it takes him to turn over money from settlements he wins in court to the state’s general fund.
“When legislators start worrying about somebody else getting credit for something, you know, that’s frustrating,” he said. “And it’s worse now than I’ve seen it in my last 13 years as attorney general where people do these little petty partisan moves that don’t help people.”
House Bill 1492 died on the calendar at midnight last Monday after the House and Senate squabbled over a provision in the appropriations bill for the Attorney General’s Office that would have required deposit of settlements won within two weeks.
Hood said he is hopeful that the special session needed to appropriate state funds for his office (and the state Department of Transportation) can be limited to the appropriations and not spread into how he manages his office.
“Hopefully cooler heads will prevail, and hopefully the governor will just call it (special session) strictly on our appropriations bill and not go into any substantive aspects of this office,” he said before a press conference to celebrate National Crime Victims’Rights Week.
During budget negotiations for the bill, lawmakers slipped in a provision to require the attorney general to deposit any money earned through legal settlements into the treasury within 15 days. House Speaker Philip Gunn ruled in favor of a point of order which claimed the provision inappropriate to be included in the spending bill and the Senate had no way to get around that objection on the deadline day.
“It is not unusual for any major piece of legislation to not make it across the finish line in one year,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in downplaying the ability of the Legislature to pass the spending bill during the regular legislative session. “We’ve had some very, very good successes this legislative session, and we’ve had some challenges, which is not unique.”
In response to the effort to force faster check deposits, Hood said Monday “just because we get a check doesn’t mean were ready to cut it the next day.”
Hood, a Democrat, said his office tries to send settlement money as soon as possible, but there are expenses and court orders that need to be dealt with before it can be dispersed into the general fund.
He described the issue as “just a situation where if they called over here, we could have explained all that stuff to them as to how it actually works.”
“We have to distribute that money and make sure all the expenses are paid before we write the check,” he said.
Before the bill died last Monday, Senate Appropriations chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said the provision exists because there was an issue during a fall 2016 budget hearing for the attorney general’s office where Hood said he had $21 million at the time but the amount changed two months later.
“We’re turning them in as fast as we can,” Hood said. “It’s not like somebody’s holding back on them. That’s just silly. It’s just juvenile games that they’re playing over there.”
The appropriations bill is just one example of how his office came under fire during the 2017 session. In February, a bill that would have limited the attorney general’s power died in the Senate.
The bill would have established a commission comprised of the governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state to approve the use of outside attorneys in cases that could result in legal awards of more than $250,000.
“I’ve just decided that’s just politics,” Hood said. “They’re just bouncing that ball back and forth over there.”
He said his office is simply doing its job, which is “to collect funds on the behalf of the state someone has overcharged or something.”
“I’m going to keep doing my job, and they can keep playing the games over that they’re playing over there,” he said.
Addressing broader state spending issues, Hood said that a repeal or delay of impending tax cuts would be “the wise thing to do” to help the state’s budget crisis.
He also said that the Legislature could have passed an internet sales tax or even a lottery to help fund road and bridge projects and public education, but “we’re just not getting that type of focus over there right now.”
Reeves ordered the internet sales tax bill killed, arguing that a Supreme Court decision makes it illegal for the state to impose such a tax.