Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Just four months after Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood stood on the Chickasaw County Courthouse steps in Houston, Miss., and bemoaned the town's dwindling emergency-care options, local resident Shyteria Shardae suffered an asthma attack. The 23-year-old woman's friends tried to take her to the local hospital, but while they were en route, a 911 operator told them to turn around and head to the fire department instead. The town's only emergency room, the operator told them, had closed its doors in 2014.
Once at the fire station, the Chickasaw Journal reported in February, an ambulance took Shardae to the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Calhoun City—a 30-minute drive. One hour and 20 minutes after her friends first called 911, a doctor at the hospital pronounced her dead.
Shardae, who was pregnant when she died, left behind a 1-year-old child.
"It's just like something from a third-world country," Hood told the Jackson Free Press in an interview at his campaign headquarters in late September. He seemed visibly frustrated over what he sees as a stark example of the kind of senseless tragedy that Mississippi's leaders could have prevented.
It was a scenario that the Democratic nominee for governor all but predicted when he announced his campaign in Houston, Miss., last year.
"We had an emergency room in Houston my whole life, and now that emergency room is gone," he said on Oct. 3, 2018. "In 1940, we had better emergency health care in rural Mississippi than we have right now. That's insane."
Houston's Trace Regional Hospital is one of five rural hospitals that have either closed their emergency services or shut down completely since 2014. About half of Mississippi's remaining rural hospitals are at risk of shutting down, a study earlier this year found.
Hood, along with a growing number of Republicans and hospital groups, blame the State of Mississippi's rejection of billions in federal dollars to expand the state's Medicaid program. Failure to make changes, Mississippi Hospital Association President Timothy Moore said in May, "is not an option." Emergency rooms have to treat people even if they do not have insurance or another way to pay, and in poor towns many people go to the emergency room for non-emergency conditions, forcing hospitals to swallow millions in unpaid costs.
"Some say health care is doing fine. The facts are, we have 31 rural hospitals on the verge of closing. This is where we are. This is the decision point," former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller said at the Neshoba County Fair in August, just weeks before Reeves beat him in the GOP primary for governor.
Under expansion, though, about 300,000 Mississippians in working households that earn too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid (but not enough to afford private health insurance or get federal subsidies) would gain health care, a 2015 Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning study found. That would provide significant relief to the State's struggling hospitals.
Since 2013, Hood's current Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, has rejected $5 billion in expansion funds, largely because the money is part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that former President Barack Obama signed into law.
"I am against Obamacare expansion," Reeves often chants when asked if he has changed his mind. Reeves' campaign has ignored repeated requests from the Jackson Free Press for an interview and has told other media including the Daily Journal in Tupelo that he will only grant off-the-record editorial board interviews.
The fact that expansion has not happened yet, Hood says, is part of a larger problem: the influence of money in Mississippi politics.
"It all boils down to just partisan politics and greedy politicians who aren't caring about working people. They're worried about themselves getting elected and protecting their corporate campaign contributors," he said.
As lieutenant governor, Reeves also serves as president of the Mississippi Senate, where he has significant power to help shape, champion or kill legislation.
Time and again, Hood said, his team has found examples of Reeves acting in a large donors' interests. Reeves has raised more money than any gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi history—about $12 million compared to Hood, who has raised about half as much.
Teacher Pay, Vouchers
Money influences education policy, too, the Democratic nominee said. During Reeves' eight years as lieutenant governor, the State has underfunded education by a cumulative $1.9 billion. Reeves has also opposed significant pay raises for teachers, like the $4,000 pay raise he killed in the Senate earlier this year before agreeing to a $1,500 raise. Considering inflation, though, Mississippi teachers make about $900 less than they did when Reeves took office in 2012.
That does not mean the GOP nominee has not focused on education during his time as lieutenant governor, though. Indeed, one of Reeves' core policy pushes has been for so-called "school choice" initiatives, like the 2013 charter-school law and the 2015 passage of the Educational Scholarship Accounts program—a tuition voucher program that uses public funds to send special-needs students to private schools.
The ESA program only covers a few hundred of the 65,000 special-needs children in the state, and many of the participating private schools do not even offer facilities to accommodate special-needs children. Meanwhile, as the State gives millions to private schools, Mississippi underfunded special education by more than $55 million over the past two years, the Parents Campaign estimates.
"We do know that there are cases where parents wish that their children had smaller classes or access to dyslexia therapy in their public schools," Parents Campaign President Nancy Loome told the Jackson Free Press in March. "But if the Legislature were doing its job and following the law and passing the funding the law requires, students would have smaller classrooms and dyslexia therapy."
Groups backing "school choice "have given Reeves tens of thousands in campaign contributions. After Reeves helped secretly sneak an extra $3 million for ESAs into an unrelated bill on the penultimate day of the 2019 session, Empower Mississippi—which donated $40,000 to him this year—topped it off with a personal "After Session Thank You" gift worth $64.14, lobbying reports show.
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, a pro-voucher and pro-charter organization backed by the billionaire Koch family, is spending currently uncertain but significant amounts to support Reeves in the 2019 race. While not directly contributing to his campaign, AFP is sponsoring ads and sending mailers out to voters urging them to support Reeves.
Hood is pushing for major investments in public education. He wants universal pre-K for children starting at age 4; he wants to get teacher pay up to the southeastern average; and he wants to fully fund education under the MAEP standards.
Ahead of the first debate, Reeves did unveil plans for a $4,300 pay raise for teachers. But over the summer, he criticized GOP primary opponent Waller for offering a similarly ambitious pay raise, and during this year's legislative session, he killed the $4,000 raise the House passed, saying the State could not afford it.
"We don't pay our teachers what they're worth," Reeves said at the Oct. 14 debate.
That message comes way too late, though, Hood told the Jackson Free Press. Reeves had eight years to fully fund education and give teachers a worthy raise and chose not to, the Democratic attorney general said.
Reeves has also repeatedly rejected efforts to fund needed infrastructure repairs. Across the state, hundreds of roads and bridges remain closed, after years of unsuccessful efforts to fund infrastructure repairs in the Legislature. In 2018, he supported the Legislature's adoption of a state lottery; those funds will go toward road and bridge repairs, but will not be enough to tackle all of the State's infrastructure needs. Like education, Hood said, it all comes down to where leadership focuses its efforts.
In early October's televised debates, Reeves often responded to Hood's proposals by criticizing his opponent as a "liberal" who is proposing an unrealistic amount of new spending.
Hood, though, told the Jackson Free Press that his plans are not unaffordable. Mississippi just has to stop giving state contracts away to corporate interests—like a Tennessee company that charged $2.3 million to hang posters in a handful of the state's schools—and stop prioritizing tax cuts for large out-of-state corporations.
"I want to cut the grocery tax on working people. They haven't been at the table. Give them, you know, a tax break. They hadn't got any tax breaks," Hood said in the interview.
He criticized Reeves for dismissing Medicaid expansion as yet another "welfare" program.
"I've heard Tate Reeves' campaign call it 'welfare.' This money, health-care money, does not ever touch a poor person's hands. It goes to a clinic; it goes to the best-paying job in a rural community like mine," Hood said. "It would keep our rural hospitals open, cover 300,000 working folks, and have such an economic impact on our state that maybe we could get off the bottom."
In 2016, Republicans passed the largest series of tax cuts in Mississippi history, including a $262-million cut to the corporate franchise tax. Out-of-state corporations snagged 78% of the benefits.
"That's 210 million dollars once that's phased in," Hood said, snapping his fingers. "Boom. It goes out of the state. It goes to large out-of-state corporations. You know, if you're going to give some kind of tax incentive, it ought to be to a Mississippi business to create jobs that we know are good paying jobs. And he just gave our money away."
Gov. Bryant, who signed the cuts into law, claimed in a CNBC article in 2016 that the axing the franchise tax "provides greater incentive for businesses to locate or stay in Mississippi."
When the Jackson Free Press brought the topic of mental health up, Hood again moved the discussion back to what he calls "legal corruption."
Over the summer, the attorney general's office defended Mississippi in a federal court in Jackson against a lawsuit in which the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that Mississippi violates the civil rights of its mentally ill residents by not providing proper mental-health resources and facilities.
Hours after a federal judge ruled that the State of Mississippi's mental-health system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act in early September, Hood told reporters that he "knew this was coming."
Hood says the problem rests with the Legislature's refusal to appropriate more funds for mental health. But some mental-health advocates say the biggest issue with the State's mental-health system is not a lack of funding; it's about the way the system is structured and the lack of coordination between various agencies.
"There is no over-arching infrastructure in our state to coordinate the different parts of the mental-health system like the Department of Mental Health, the Division of Medicaid, the community mental-health system and all those private providers that are out there," Families As Allies Director Joy Hogge said at a press conference in September. "So that is the main reason people are falling through the gaps. ... We don't even know if it's about money at this point. Because until those things get addressed, there is no way to know what money is actually being spent on and what we need (when it comes to) money.
"So all those discussions about money are really red herrings at this point and not the most important thing to be talking about. We need to look at how our system is structured, and every lawmaker bears responsibility for that."
When the Jackson Free Press brought up those kinds of objections to his focus on money, he said he understood the concerns, but insisted that money is an important part of fixing the issues in the system.
"Now, you know, there are certainly issues with the regional mental-health facilities not being in the same department as the Department of Mental Health," he answered. "I'm not saying whether or not we should combine the two, but I assume that's what those people out there are talking about."
"And there certainly needs to be better coordination," Hood continued. "But the fact is all this talk about how, 'Well, we're not going to throw more money at the problem.' Well, we never tried. We've never tried to actually fund it. What we did is we went the other way. Tate Reeves and his minions, in order to give more money to their campaign contributors through corporate tax cuts, they cut 624 jobs from the Department of Mental Health."
Hood, of course, does not blame the influence of money on the lieutenant governor alone; every member of the Legislature and every statewide elected office, including his own, is invited to do the bidding of big business to the detriment of the people, he admits.
Reeves is not the only candidate who is familiar with allegations of trading campaign donations for favors and contracts, though.
What About 'Trial Lawyers'?
In a 2008 editorial titled "Lawsuits, Inc.," the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal reported that Hood was among attorneys generals in several states who "outsource legal work to for-profit tort lawyers" who "then funnel a share of their winnings" back through campaign contributions.
The Journal cross-referenced campaign-finance reports with the names of 27 private firms or individual lawyers within firms that Hood had hired and found that some of his largest donors had received "lucrative" state contracts.
In all, Hood accepted $543,000 from such donors during the 2003 and 2007 election cycles, the Journal found.
Since that 2009 story, Hood has spent more than $100 million in State funds hiring outside counsel. Lawyers remain some of his biggest donors. But when asked, he points to the money he has brought in to the State with those lawsuits and says he hired lawyers on a first-come basis.
"Those lawyers didn't get a dime unless we brought in money. So, I brought in about $3 billion," Hood told the AP in mid-October. "And as fast as I could bring it in, Tate Reeves is giving it away in tax giveaways to his corporate cronies."
During the first gubernatorial debate between Hood and Reeves, the Republican claimed that "the business community in Mississippi is scared to death of having a trial lawyer as governor."
Warnings about trial lawyers litter GOP anti-Hood literature. But for Republicans, who depend more on donations from big corporations than lawyers, those objections are also rooted in their support for tort reform. Republicans ran on the issue in 2003, with Haley Barbour leading the charge. The goal was to minimize the ability of Mississippians who claimed a corporation had harmed or in some way injured them from suing and winning large payouts.
Media coverage at the time centered around "greedy trial lawyers" getting rich with "frivolous lawsuits"—not sympathetic portrayals of Mississippians with legitimate injuries or grievances. Not only did the GOP's tort-reform push help cement its power within the business community, but it made it easier to demonize Democrats who accepted donations from trial lawyers.
"In post-tort reform Mississippi, the political dynamic has forever changed. For businesses and their political allies, a candidate who accepts contributions from trial lawyers becomes radioactive," wrote Mississippi political strategists Jere Nash and Andy Taggart in their book, "Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power 1976-2006."
Nash is a Democrat, and Taggart is a Republican who recently lost a GOP primary run for attorney general.
Under Reeves' leadership earlier this year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Bryant signed the Landowner's Protection Act, which critics say makes it nearly impossible for someone to sue a business if they are injured by a third party on its property—even if the business-owner knew there was a likelihood for violence and failed to take steps to prevent it.
"You have to prove that they intended to hurt the person who gets harmed on their premises," Democratic House minority leader David Baria, who is a lawyer, said during debate over the bill earlier this year.
During the sit-down at his headquarters with the Jackson Free Press, Hood talked about decades of corruption in another policy area: Mississippi's private prisons.
He pointed to the first bill former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour signed, Tallahatchie County Correctional Authority Bill, which the former Republican leader signed under the auspices of "saving Mississippi jobs. It removed restrictions on which classifications of prisoner a corporate-owned facility in Tutwiler, Miss., as well as other private prisons across the state, could house. That opened the floodgates for private prison corporations to house virtually any category of Mississippi inmate.
"That was nothing but a political bill. One-hundred grand went from Corrections Corporation of America to a PAC. That same day, when Haley was running in 2003, that PAC wrote Haley Barbour a $100,000 check," Hood said.
Hood's figure was slightly off, but campaign-finance reports do show that the Corrections Corporation of America gave the Republican Governors Association a $110,000 that year. The RGA repeatedly shifted funds to Barbour's campaign throughout the 2003 race, giving him more than $2 million by its end.
"So, the first bill Haley signed was the Tutwiler prison run by Corrections Corporation of America," Hood said.
Instead of saving money as Barbour promised, he ended up having to defend the state in lawsuits tied to private prisons, including ones CCA runs. In 2012, a deadly riot broke out at one CCA facility in Natchez.
In recent years, the company sought to rebranding, changing its name to CoreCivic.
"(Private prison companies) don't hire enough guards. There are riots. There are problems. People sue the state. And guess which ones we've had to defend the state on? It's primarily those private prisons," Hood said.
"And that's nothing but a debacle. That's for campaign contributions. Because they give contributions and those state facilities don't."
But Mississippi, the Jackson Free Press pointed out, has an incarceration rate that is nearly 50% higher than the U.S. average. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
A Criminal-Justice Sore Spot
Hood's positions on criminal-justice issues tend to align more with conservatives than with advocates for reform of the system. He continues to support the death penalty, including the State's decision to bring back the firing squad for executions, even in some questionable cases. That includes a prominent case in which the work of this newspaper helped halt an execution.
The attorney general worked to expedite the execution of Michelle Byrom, who spent 15 years on death row for her husband's 1999 murder. In 2014, Hood's office pushed for the State to execute her on March 27 of that year, despite problems with her conviction and trial that the Jackson Free Press detailed in a series of reports at the time.
Instead, on March 31, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out her conviction after her attorneys presented the court with a confession letter from Byrom's son, who claimed that he shot his father.
Byrom left prison in 2015.
During his interview with the Jackson Free Press, Hood said that criminal-justice reform has to be about more than just "turning (people) out," shifting the conversation to a "re-entry" talking point that conservatives, even Donald Trump, are also embracing now. It has to be about fighting recidivism, too. As attorney general, he said, he asked for money for halfway houses.
"Now we call it re-entry. Many people would get out and have their probation get revoked, and they'd get put back in the penitentiary," he said. "We wanted to put them in a halfway-house situation where they could work and not have to deal with fences and guards or wear ankle bracelets. They've gotta have a job to be there, and they would have drug counseling at night or trade skill training. I've been advocating for that for 25 years.
"And I've been advocating for re-entry since I've been attorney general."
"If people don't have any hope, they're not going to get a job and be a productive citizen in many cases unless you help them," he continued later. "And so just some of the ways we came up with that didn't cost any money, like re-entry counseling. You can't get a job with an MDOC card. So, we had to try to get them drivers licenses."
Zoe Towns, who is the senior criminal-justice reform director at the New York-based organization fwd.us, said that Hood's proposals are positive overall, and she also praised Reeves for supporting some incremental criminal-justice reforms in recent years. To really make change, though, she said, candidates ought to first focus on "Mississippi's extraordinary sentence lengths and long prison times."
"People spend disproportionately long periods of time behind bars due to a series of laws and decisions that are being made at the legislative and executive level, and any kind of meaningful steps forward for Mississippi is going to have to include robust sentencing reform," she said.
Hood, though, insists that the reason the Legislature has not pursued more "substantial" reforms when it comes to the State's prisons is because politicians are beholden to their "corporate masters."
'That's Going to Be a Battle'
"So we've got to clean the Legislature up," Hood continued later in the conversation. "It's being run by large out-of-state corporations. A regular old millionaire, like a member of the Mississippi Economic Council, can't influence that Legislature any more; it takes a billionaire."
If everything in the Mississippi Legislature is about money and "legal corruption," though, the Jackson Free Press asked Hood, how does he plan to change that?
"Now that's going to be a battle," he said. "What I told you about the other three issues, we've got the votes to do those things. This one is going to be the tough one. I think we can get some votes to ban them from taking money during the legislative session. I think we can get that one passed. I think that we can probably ban campaign contributions from corporations. The tough one is going to be the Open Records Act."
The Open Records Act requires transparency from every government agency, which has allowed outlets like—except the Legislature. If legislators were held to the same standards as other state agencies, citizens would be able to get access to legislators' work-related text messages, call logs, emails and other such communications.
Over the past year, Hood's office investigated allegations that Reeves pressured the Department of Transportation into building a multi-million-dollar public road that would connect his private community to a popular shopping center.
When Hood's office asked Reeves for emails and text messages related to the project, he said there were none, but that he would not be obliged to turn any over under public-records laws anyway because he, as president of the Mississippi Senate, has "legislative privilege." Hood's office was able to obtain emails from the Mississippi Department of Transportation showing that officials there did communicate with Reeves' team about the project.
"A reasonable fact finder could review the evidence in the report and conclude that Lieutenant Governor Reeves wanted the frontage road to be built and additionally applied political pressure to that end," former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice David Chandler, who served from 2009 to 2015, wrote in an opinion on Hood's findings. Hood is leaving any charging decisions up to the next attorney general. Reeves denies any wrongdoing.
Opening up public-records laws would not just make it easier for investigators to suss out potential abuses of power, though, Hood said. It might just convince lawmakers to think twice before allowing themselves to be "wined-and-dined" by wealthy donors.
"That may take an uphill climb, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the people get access to their government," he said.
Election on Nov. 5
The election is on Nov. 5. Anyone who registered to vote by Oct. 7 is eligible to cast a ballot. Voters must bring a state-accepted form of photo ID to the voting booth.
Voters will choose leaders in statewide races, regional races, and in all Mississippi House and Senate district races.
More information on voting, polling locations and voter ID is available on the secretary of state's website at sos.ms.gov.
Visit jfp.ms/ hindsleg2019 for more info on local legislative candidates.