By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Any state agency would be able to hire its own attorney to oppose the legal position of the attorney general under legislation guided to passage Wednesday by the House Republican leadership.
The legislation passed 59-55, largely along party lines, but not until after the Republican majority fought off 17 Democratic amendments during four-plus hours of debate.
Attorney General Jim Hood, the state’s lone Democratic statewide elected official, said the proposal is unconstitutional and he would fight it in court if it becomes law. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Hood, as the state’s chief legal official, supplies attorneys to each state agency. The bill would not exclude Hood from representing the agencies but would allow them to hire a private attorney when they did not agree with Hood’s legal direction.
For instance, former Gov. Haley Barbour opposed Hood hiring outside counsel to sue drug companies on grounds they overcharged for drugs for Medicaid recipients. In the 1990s, former Gov. Kirk Fordice opposed previous Attorney General Mike Moore’s successful lawsuit against the tobacco companies.
House Judiciary A Committee chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said the legislation would not prevent the AG from filing similar lawsuits. But Democrats argued a competing attorney representing an agency head opposed to the lawsuit would make the case harder for the attorney general to win.
Baker said one person should not be able to determine all the state’s legal positions.
Baker said the bill had nothing to do with Hood personally or his being a Democrat.
“I would not bring out a bill to poke a stick in the eye of anybody,” he said.
Some of the amendments came close to passing. An amendment proposed by Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, that would have prevented the Public Employees Retirement System Board from hiring a private attorney was defeated by one vote.
Republicans also defeated an amendment that would have prevented any law firm associated with a legislator from being hired to represent the state. The firm in which House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, works on a contractual basis has tried to intervene on behalf of the Division of Medicaid in opposition to the lawsuit Hood has filed against drug companies.
Gunn, the primary author of the bill, said the language preventing law firms associated with legislators from representing a state agency was not needed because it is already law.
Another proposal defeated by Republicans would have limited the private attorney from being paid more than the $65 per hour charged by the AG’s office.
The bill requires all contracts with outside lawyers over $100,000 be approved by a state board. All contracts of any amount would have to be filed with that board.