Y’all Politics sits down with Rep. Mark Baker on his decision to run for Attorney General

May 1, 2018

Tuesday Rep. Mark Baker announced he was planning to run for Attorney General in 2019 after almost 16 years in state legislature.

Mark Baker on run for Attorney General

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Rep. Mark Baker for Mississippi sits down with Y'all Politics Sarah Ulmer to talk about his recent decision to run for Attorney General. #msleg *(note: previous post was removed due to a video graphic error)

Posted by YallPolitics on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

In the video Baker says one of the main things he would focus on is reprioritizing the priorities in the office of the Attorney General. He said he believes the role of the AG has become blurred over the years.

He gave the example of AG Hood’s silence during the fight over Obamacare several years ago. Baker said he would have been in the middle of the fight. He also believes the AG’s office should support the legislature and legislation passed to protect rights of Mississippians.

“One of the biggest problems I see is the continued use of outside counsel and filing lawsuit after lawsuit against businesses for everything imaginable,” said Baker. He said this is the imposition of states rule over one person on a particular issue which should involve many more elements on the overall impact on Mississippi it has. He said in many cases it is a negative impact on public policy in Mississippi.

Baker has been in private practice for 30 years with a vast knowledge of all kinds of cases. He has worked with law enforcement for his entire career and served in the House for almost 16 years.

 

Rep. Mark Baker announces run for attorney general in 2019

, The Clarion-Ledger

Longtime Republican state Rep. Mark Baker announced he is running for attorney general next year, a post for which Baker has considered running for years.

“It was just a matter of realizing that what I think needs to be changed in the attorney general’s office can’t be done from the outside-in,” the Brandon lawmaker said Tuesday. “It’s got to be done from the inside out. There are a lot of great lawyers and staff working in that department, but the energies and priorities and focus needs to be readjusted.”

As chairman of the House Judiciary A Committee, Baker has for years criticized Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood’s prolific litigation against corporations and large fees paid to outside law firms Hood hires for the lawsuits. He has also criticized Hood’s reluctance to file or join litigation at the behest of the governor or lawmakers on issues such as trying to overturn the federal Affordable Care Act.

More: Legislature passes PSC bill Hood says is designed to stop Entergy lawsuit

Baker has pushed legislation to limit the AG’s power to file lawsuits and to pay large fees to law firms used in state lawsuits, including the 2012 “Mississippi Sunshine Act.”

Baker claims the AG’s office has been a cash cow for trial lawyers and has shirked responsibilities such as prosecuting white-collar and political corruption in Mississippi.

“The office needs to get back to crime fighting … and restore integrity and the public’s trust,” Baker said.

The AG’s seat is expected to be open in 2019, with Hood expected to run for governor. Baker is likely to face a primary fight with Republican state Treasurer Lynn Fitch, who has shown interest in the office. An open seat would likely draw other candidates from both Democratic or Republican parties.

More: Who’s (maybe) running in 2019 … AG edition

Baker, 55, was first elected to the House District 74 seat in the Legislature in 2004, serving parts of Rankin County and previously parts of Madison County. He served as House Republican leader from 2008-2012, helping lead recruitment, campaigns and fundraising that resulted in a GOP House takeover in 2011 elections. The House gained a Republican majority — now increased to a supermajority —  for the first time since Reconstruction.

Baker is a graduate of the University of Memphis and Mississippi College School of Law. He is a former prosecutor for the city of Brandon and municipal judges for Pelahatchie. He serves as board attorney for Brandon and Puckett. Baker also is a licensed property and casualty insurance agent.

He is married to Lady Baker, a Brandon High School teacher, and they have one son.

Contact Geoff Pender at 601-961-7266 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

Clarion Ledger: Divorce reform expected to help domestic violence victims

, The Clarion-Ledger

Starting July 1, abused spouses can more easily get a divorce in Mississippi when the first major change to the state’s antiquated divorce laws in more than 40 years takes effect.

“I absolutely think it’s going to help,” said Sandy Middleton, director of the Center for Violence Prevention, who helped draft and champion the new law, which was subject to fierce debate and had previously been killed in the Legislature before its passage in March. “It’s going to make a big difference for victims trying to escape violent homes.”

Experts and advocates have for years said Mississippi’s divorce laws, little changed over 100 years except for an “irreconcilable differences” ground added in 1976, trap spouses and children in abusive situations and financial limbo. The state’s divorce laws, they said, contribute to domestic violence and abuse.

In March, after much debate and killing similar proposals this year and last, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a measure that allows judges to grant divorce for “spousal domestic abuse” based on testimony of the victim spouse. Previously, the state’s “habitual, cruel and inhuman treatment” ground for divorce had been interpreted to require corroborating evidence or testimony or evidence of a pattern of violence — often difficult to show just by the nature of domestic abuse. The change will allow judges to grant a divorce if they believe a spouse’s claim of abuse, and it clarifies that abuse can include threats, intimidation, emotional and other non-physical abuse if it “rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.”

“Domestic violence is a very private situation going on in someone’s home,” Middleton said. “There’s either no witness, or the only ones who can corroborate are the children, and it’s certainly not a positive experience for children to be involved and testifying.”

Domestic violence is again at the forefront in Mississippi after Willie Cory Godbolt went on a shooting rampage last week in Bogue Chitto that left eight dead after an argument with his estranged wife over their children.

Some lawmakers say they’re hopeful the change in divorce law will help reduce domestic violence and abuse, and that they are contemplating, or open to, other changes in law or policy to address the issue.

More reform contemplated

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, championed the divorce-law reform. She said she’s gotten positive feedback, but is concerned some people “think the law goes a little bit further than it does.”

“It is still a definite step in the right direction,” Doty said. “But just for example, we had drafts of the bill back and forth, and at one point it had language addressing financial abuse — many women are financially unable to leave because their finances are controlled by the husband, especially if they are not working outside of the home.”

Even with the recent reform, Mississippi and South Dakota remain the only two states without a unilateral “no-fault” divorce ground — ensuring getting a divorce in Mississippi remains difficult and expensive and often allowing one spouse to delay finalizing a divorce for years.

Doty said she plans to push again for a form of no-fault divorce, creating long-term separation — two years or more — as a ground.

But similar measures have met strong opposition from many lawmakers and the religious lobby. They have thwarted efforts to make divorce any easier or cheaper in effort to uphold the institution and sanctity of marriage. Yet, Mississippi has continually ranked near the top of states in its divorce rates — seventh highest in one recent study.

Doty said another possibility to address domestic violence is strengthening mandatory reporting laws, requiring health officials to report signs of physical abuse. Lawmakers in recent years have passed similar reform on mandatory reporting of child abuse.

House Judiciary B Chairman Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, this year initially killed the domestic abuse divorce reform measure in his committee. But after hearing from victims and advocates, helped draft and pass the measure that will become law in July.

Gipson opposes no-fault divorce measures, but said his committee has helped strengthen domestic abuse and related laws in recent years and he’s open to doing more. Gipson and others have worked with Attorney General Jim Hood’s Domestic Violence Unit in passing such laws.

“We have strengthened the law on no-contact orders, stalking, domestic abuse and enhanced penalties for violating the law,” Gipson said. “The whole concept of human trafficking is somewhat related to this issue of domestic abuse, and that’s one area where it appears there is more we can do.”

Gipson said other areas where the state might look to improve include training law enforcement to detect and deal with domestic violence and human trafficking and in early intervention with potential abusers — perhaps even addressing it in school curriculum.

“A lot of this problem, in my opinion, goes back to the breakdown of the family,” Gipson said. “If a young person is taught in the home early what is right and wrong, that you don’t beat on people — but if somebody is not, or is taught the opposite, it ends up becoming generational. At some point we’ve got to break that cycle.”

Middleton said she agrees, and that her agency is working to help law enforcement and youth with training and education.

“We are working with a couple of local jurisdictions to help law enforcement determine who and what situations are dangerous,” Middleton said. “There is a lethality assessment that can be used in a lot of different settings, to help determine a safety plan for victims and for law enforcement to use in responding to calls. If there are guns in a home, if there has been stalking, strangulation, multiple calls — it might also be that dispatchers can be better trained … It’s scary because the mentality of law enforcement when they respond to the same address multiple times is maybe to get more lax — ‘Oh, well, it’s time to go break up Mr. and Mrs. Smith fighting again.’ It should be the opposite — domestic violence always escalates, every time (police) go up those stairs, it’s getting more dangerous.”

Middleton said her agency also works in early intervention and education with children and young adults.

“We already do those things, prevention programs in some schools, safe dates program, nationally based prevention programs proven to work,” Middleton said. “But we do get some pushback from schools, even with a group like ours offering to do it for free, grant funded. The schools are already required to do so many things already beyond just education. And you obviously can’t change somebody’s upbringing in just two sessions. It’s a challenge, but we certainly would like to deal with more children and young adults.”

Mandatory counseling, treatment

House Judicary A Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, is a former prosecutor and also practiced family law for years. He said more mandatory counseling and treatment in domestic abuse cases could help. Baker said a state law passed eight years ago for police to file affidavits when there is probable cause on behalf of domestic violence victims who don’t want to press charges “was a great change, that brings people into the presence of the court.”

“But here’s where there’s a disconnect,” Baker said. “Nobody, nobody should leave a court with a domestic violence charge without engaging in some form of counseling — either some form of marriage counseling, anger management counseling, domestic violence counseling — if they want that charge dismissed.

“In many cases by the time you get to court, everybody’s just ready to go to the house,” Baker said. “It’s, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad. We’re back together and everybody is happy and copacetic.’ That is a recipe for disaster, and the courts have to say, ‘I get it.’ We haven’t figured out what’s lighting the fire, not addressing the crux of the biscuit that got everybody here in the first place. I want to look at making it mandatory for the alleged violator before obtaining any dismissal or non-adjudication to have to engage in some kind of court-approved counseling, and probably in many cases the victim, too. Not to pile on the victim, but to empower them, whether they want it or not, give the means to empower them.”

Contact Geoff Pender at 601-961-7266 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

Jackson Free Press: ‘One Lake’ Tax Sails Forward

By Donna Ladd

— Previous plans to dramatically remake the portion of the Pearl River that flows through the Jackson metropolitan area ran aground, but legislation is sailing toward the governor’s desk that would pay for the project by taxing selected property in the new “One Lake” footprint.

The project would rely on a mix of federal funds, state bonds and taxes from local property owners set to benefit financially from the ambitious development project. The U.S. Congress, helped by Mississippi representatives, recently earmarked $150 million for “One Lake” as part of the long-delayed Water Resources Development Act of 2016, passed in December, and U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran may procure up to $250 million for it, Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, told the Senate Tuesday.

Project advocates want some land owners within the footprint to help provide the other $50 million to $150 million to pay for the $300 million project if and once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves it.

The Mississippi House first embraced the plan this session, passing a specially tailored House Bill 1585 by a vote of 110-4, which included every member of the Hinds and Rankin county delegations. The Senate voted March 13 to pass the House bill. If signed into law, the legislation allows a “flood or drainage control project” to levy “a special tax upon all the taxable property within such district” that the board of directors of said district determines “is so benefited” by said project.

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The “One Lake” project is scaled back from earlier and more controversial versions, and may draw on $250 million in federal earmarks, as well as state bonds and targeted taxes, to move ahead.

That means that HB 1585 would allow the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, commonly called the Levee Board, to decide which land within the district would financially benefit from “One Lake” development and then levy a “special improvement assessment” on those property owners. The funds, which county tax collectors would collect under threats of property liens, would help pay for building, operating and maintaining the project, including principal and interest on any necessary state bonds needed for the project on or before Labor Day each September, the legislation says.

The Levee Board would “determine, order and levy” the tax installments annually, starting July 2, 2017. “This is a levee board, so those within the ‘levy’ district pay that levy,” co-author Rep. Mark Baker, a Brandon Republican, told the House on Feb. 21.

Sen. Kirby told his chamber Wednesday that the plan to dredge and widen the Pearl River would create 1,000 new acres of valuable waterfront property that will be commercial, residential and recreational. He also promised that it would remove 850 existing homes and 418 businesses from the threat of an event like the Easter Flood of 1979. “Those properties will not have to buy flood insurance … or not as much,” Kirby said.

“Property values will go up; it’s a win-win in my opinion all the way around,” he added.

‘We’ve Got to Find a Way’

Sen. John Horhn, a Jackson Democrat who is also running for mayor, told the Jackson Free Press recently that he is excited about “One Lake” because “it can help to make Jackson a real destination”—a sentiment that Mayor Tony Yarber, who now sits on the Levee Board, shares.

Horhn said most of the “developable land” specified in the plan is on the Jackson side of the Pearl—meaning most of the fees would come from Jackson property owners. HB 1585, he said, would allow the Levee Board to levy taxes on those property owners based on how “developable” their land is. “If it’s not as developable as another piece, then you don’t get charged the same fees that the developable land is charged,” Horhn said.

The senator emphasized that the new property taxes will not be enough to pay for “One Lake,” though. “We’ve got to find a way to raise $100 million from local and state sources. Some of it will have to be bonded by the state, and some of it will have to be borne by the locals in those fee assessments,” Horhn said in late February.

Baker promised on the House floor that “One Lake” would be “the crown jewel of Jackson when it’s built.” It also stands to benefit communities on the east side of the Pearl with potential flood relief and increased property values, including Flowood, Brandon and Pearl, and present and future development on the west side of the lucrative Jackson airport footprint.

“One Lake” is the latest version of the long-time dream of oil wildcatter John McGowan to dam the Pearl around Jackson, promising to provide needed flood mitigation while creating valuable lakefront property that could contribute to local economic development. The idea has long excited many people, especially those who bought land and built in the flood plain in recent decades and have the most to lose in a catastrophic flood.

Earlier versions called for two different lakes and miles of lucrative waterfront property, much of it private, both above and below Lakeland Drive and even two developed islands in the middle. The latest plan is to move a weir (low dam) on the Pearl River south of Interstate 20 slightly to the southeast of the end of McDowell Road in order to allow the river to widen and deepen to become a lake. Its footprint still extends above Lakeland near property McGowan’s family owns.

The Lakes Plan That Won’t Recede

The JFP’s 2010 investigation of the “Two Lakes” plan, including who would benefit.

Last fall, Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads, who sits on the Levee Board alongside mayors from Jackson and nearby Rankin County towns, said “One Lake” would help protect the facilities in the medical district that sits in the floodplain on the east side of the Pearl. “Everybody is excited about it because of the potential for such devastation in the City of Flowood. We have four hospitals over here that are subject to flooding: River Oaks, Woman’s, Brentwood Behavioral. Methodist Rehab,” Rhoads said then.

‘A Real Pretty Picture’

Previous versions of the lake plans drew criticism on multiple fronts, from its viability as reliable flood relief, to its high (and under-estimated, some believed) price tag, to the need for government eminent domain to take property, to negative environmental impacts.

Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown, pointed out on the House floor recently that the lake plan is purposely painted as “a real pretty picture” that may not tell the whole story of what is to come.

In return, Baker acknowledged that earlier lake plans had caused several knock-down, drag-out fights, but said HB 1585 had grown out of impressive current cooperation. “There have been more discussions and public hearings and involvement and cooperation between Hinds County and Rankin County and Flowood and Pearl … and if you want to look at how a family gets along, 1585 is it,” he said.

Some of those earlier fights involved potential conflicts of interest. The Jackson Free Press revealed in 2010 that some of the project’s promoters and members of the Levee Board, or their families or business partners, owned property within the footprint that could increase in value. At the time, those potential conflicts had not been disclosed—nor were contributions by McGowan and his partners to a supportive mayoral candidate through a political action committee until the last hour. The “Two Lakes” plan was later scrapped with the scaled-back “One Lake” version eventually placing it.

McGowan told the Jackson Free Press in the early stages of the new plan that he had divested his holdings within the footprint. He and others formed the nonprofit Pearl River Vision Foundation that has driven the efforts behind and design of the new plan and that they argue mitigates any conflict-of-interest concerns today.

The environmental impacts of such an undertaking, which McGowan downplayed in earlier years of pushing his lake plans, are now more front and center in the planning. In recent years, the foundation has spent considerable time researching the plan’s effect on the environment, in no small part to try to avoid lawsuits that could delay the project for years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as an independent engineering firm, still must approve the project before it moves ahead.

The elephant in the room, though, for the lake project is still lurking downstream. Those who live and work near the Pearl River further south have long been concerned that slowing the flow of the Pearl would affect the environment and wildlife, including the salinity of the water in the marshlands where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. 
 That is, despite a Kumbaya approach to the current tax bill, the Jackson metro does not own the Pearl River—meaning that the Levee Board could face lawsuits for years before the project comes to fruition.

Read more on the lake(s) saga at jfp.ms/pearlriver. Additional reporting from the Mississippi Legislature by Arielle Dreher.

Mississippi governor signs civil asset forfeiture reform bill into law

By Steve Wilson

Civil asset forfeiture reform is coming to the Magnolia State after Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law House Bill 812 Monday.

The new law, authored by state Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, brings several changes to the state’s civil asset forfeiture system. Those include:

  • Guidelines for law enforcement agencies to report to the state the location of each forfeiture, any criminal prosecution actions taken on the property owners, the value of the property and its disposition.
  • The construction and maintenance of a searchable website by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, subject to the provision of funds by the Legislature.
  • A new warrant system that would require a county or circuit judge to issue a civil seizure warrant within 72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. The law enforcement agency would have to inform the judge on what was taken and why it was seized, and explain to the judge the probable cause to justify the seizure. If the judge doesn’t issue a seizure warrant, the property would be returned.
  • A requirement that the local district attorney or the MBN prosecute all forfeitures, which would eliminate outside counsel from being hired by law enforcement agencies.

Institute for Justice legislative counsel Lee McGrath told Mississippi Watchdog that the new law is a solid first step for civil asset forfeiture reform in the state. McGrath testified before the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force led by Baker last year as it gathered information and issued recommendations that later became H.B. 812.

“I’ve always had a preference to start with a reporting bill because that’s the only way that real facts get in front of state legislators,” McGrath said. “It’s a solid first step because it will produce real facts that legislators can use in the future to make substantive policy changes. The good news about this bill is that facts will prevail.”

According to the liberty-oriented Institute for Justice, Mississippi is now the 18th state to pass some kind of reform of its forfeiture system.

Even without H.B. 812, changes are already afoot in the state’s civil asset forfeiture system.

J. Scott Gilbert, a former federal prosecutor who handles civil asset forfeiture cases for Jackson law firm Watkins and Eager, told Mississippi Watchdog that forfeiture complaints with little or no specificity on the circumstances aren’t likely to be accepted by the courts after a recent decision this year by the Mississippi Court of Appeals that upheld the dismissal of a forfeiture plea.

Gilbert trained federal agents during his time as an assistant U.S. attorney on forfeiture procedures and has successfully litigated civil asset forfeiture cases in Delaware, Mississippi and Texas. He also testified before the Civil Asset Forfeiture Task Force.

“For years, judicial complaints for forfeiture filed in state court have not included any real information related to the who, what, when, where and why of the conduct alleged to justify the forfeiture,” Gilbert said. “Assuming the Mississippi Supreme Court upholds that decision, I think we will see civil forfeiture complaints in state court begin to contain more substantive information about the underlying events.

“I do not expect this to have any effect on the number of judicial forfeiture cases brought by the state. It will only result in more factually comprehensive pleadings.”

Steve Wilson reports for Mississippi Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter.

Clarion Ledger: Capitol Hill could welcome King of the Blues

, The Clarion-Ledger

Capitol Hill could welcome the King of the Blues if Mississippi lawmakers and the governor back a resolution.

Each state selects two statues to represent the state in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.

In 1931, Mississippi donated its statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and J.Z. George, chief architect of the state’s notorious 1890 Constitution, which was designed to disenfranchise African Americans through poll taxes and other means..

A number of states have replaced statues, including Alabama, which chose Helen Keller as a replacement statue, and California, which chose Ronald Reagan.

Under the resolution introduced at the state Legislature, Mississippi’s most beloved bluesman, B.B. King, would take George’s place.

Bryant has expressed his support for a discussion of replacing George, saying, “B.B. King and Elvis would both be good possibilities for a replacement.”

If King were chosen, he would be the first African American chosen by a state to represent it. Congress added a statue of Rosa Parks in 2013.

Suggested replacements have included William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer among many others.

State Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, introduced the resolution Monday to have King as a replacement statue.

“We’re the home of the blues and the Grammy Museum,” he said. “That seems to be a good foot to put forward.”

Baker received the suggestion from Flowood lawyer Michael Wolf, who visited the U.S. Capitol with his family and was surprised to see George’s statue. “I thought, ‘This isn’t the Mississippi I know,’” he said.

State Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, praised George as “a small-town attorney, a staunch defender of the common man, a United States senator, a proponent of Mississippi’s agriculture and the chief justice of Mississippi’s Supreme Court.”

She criticized those “who refuse to recognize the efforts of the 19th-century pioneers who settled this state and carved a civilization from the wilderness. I refuse to take part in revisionist history and ask the members of the Mississippi Senate to do the same.”

Baker said he welcomes the debate over who should represent Mississippi. “I say, ‘Let’s have a discussion.’”

Contact Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.