During Jim Hood's tenure as Attorney General for Mississippi, he's witnessed hundreds of jobs lost in the mental health field coupled with a rise in opioid abuse and addiction.
"We have let down people that have needed our help the most at a time when they need it the most," Hood said. "I saw the crack epidemic, the meth epidemic. This one is the worst one yet."
Hood, a Democratic candidate for governor, spoke to The Meridian Star's editorial board on Friday about his campaign. Hood will face a host of opponents in the primary with the winner facing the Republican nominee in the general election in November.
Hood, along with attorneys general across the country, have joined in a class action suit against opioid manufacturers.
"We can try to recoup some of the money lost but you'll never get back the lives we've lost," Hood said.
Part of a statewide Mental Health Task Force, Hood and others have brainstormed ways to improve mental healthcare in the state, including reforming the Chancery Court committal process and paperwork.
"We've also been training law enforcement officers... (on) how to recognize an underlying mental health issue and de-escalate the situation," Hood said. "And we want Medicaid to expedite making someone eligible so we can get federal money for that treatment."
Hood has handled the state's defense against the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded in 2011 that the state's mental health services violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by segregating people with disabilities – defined as mental, developmental and physical disabilities – in state institutions away from their communities.
Hood said that a similar suit in Georgia had already cost the state $225 million. He anticipated the state, which has cut mental health funding since 2011, would see the case start again in summer.
The gap in funding, for both mental healthcare and healthcare, could be at least partially closed by expanding Medicaid and bolstering the state's $6-billion budget by an additional $1 billion in federal funding through the Affordable Care Act.
In his Houston hometown, the hospital closed its emergency room and couldn't treat a 22-year-old mother who had an asthma attack and died.
"Our emergency rural healthcare is worse now than it was in 1950 when my grandfather practiced," Hood said. "(Expanding healthcare) was a Republican idea for the Democrats adopted it... it's ludicrous that we haven't taken it."
If elected governor, Hood said he would put aside partisanship and bring jobs to the state by improving healthcare, roads and education.
"Our economy has grown a little under one percent each year since 2009. Tennessee has grown 20 percent... we're losing more kids than any state in the union," Hood said.
Though legislators didn't raise taxes, they did approve raising tuition costs at two-year and four-year state colleges, "pricing out working families," Hood said.
"Some of these kids have $70,000 in debt. They can't come back to a two-lane town. They're going to Nashville, Austin and Atlanta," Hood said. "The way to keep those kids is to keep college debts down."
Hood advocated for investing in small "main street businesses" rather than big out-of-state corporations to keep young adults in the state.
"Many of those main street businesses have been kicked to the curb," Hood said, citing the hundreds of millions in tax cuts out-of-state corporations receive from Mississippi. "We're giving away our treasury with little benefit. The one percent growth shows that."
This rational group of business leaders composed the bulk of the voters Hood said he hoped to attract to his campaign.
"The bright spot of this campaign is that there's so much craziness - on both sides - that it's pushing the moderate people together," Hood said. "The Mississippi Economic Council knows economy is not moving and they want to see something different... I'm committed to do something that will make a difference in Mississippi. Because if we keep doing what we're doing, our kids may never catch up (to the rest of the country)."
Hood also played a role in overturning a 1992 Supreme Court decision that didn't permit states to charge online companies, without a 'brick-and-mortar store' sales tax.
"It was owed by the people who made the purchases. Now, it's on the merchants to collect that money," Hood said.
With that additional money coming into the state's coffers, Hood said the money, currently dispersed to cities, should also go to counties to offset any losses in local tax collections.
Hood said he believed that legislators should be more transparent, especially with back-room deals or emails from big donors, which he hoped would reduce the split between Republicans and Democrats.
"What I find encouraging is how many Republicans and Democrats want to see me run and want to see us do better," Hood said. "There are a lot of good people who go over (to Jackson) and try to have an effect... but we need to stop this petty partisanship."
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, and Hood, a Democrat, both have primaries but focus most of their attention on each other. Hood criticized Reeves for his big contributions from energy corporations in litigation with the state and his, still undefined, role in pushing for a publicly built road to his house.
"I think we've got a chance at this," Hood said. "If we keep doing what we're doing, my kids are going to leave and I won't see my grandchildren grow up."