Panel opposes cuts to legal aid for poor

Posted Dec. 30, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the newly created Commission on Indigent Legal Services are opposing Gov. John Baldacci’s proposal to cut their budget by $457,990 in their first year of operation, but the governor says their fears are unwarranted.

“We are already behind the eight ball and putting us further behind the eight ball is not a good idea,” Portland lawyer Ron Schneider, chairman of the commission, said Tuesday at a meeting of the panel.

The commission was created earlier this year as an independent agency to oversee payments to lawyers to defend Mainers who cannot afford to pay for their own attorney. The judicial branch now handles both the appointment of the lawyers and the process that determines how much they are paid, a situation that many lawmakers felt put the judges in a difficult role.

Schneider and the others on the five-member panel believe the true costs of operating the indigent legal services system are masked by its integration into the court system. The panel was appropriated $262,784 this budget year to get started and on July 1, 2010, will become fully operational with a budget of $10,826,738.

“They didn’t fully account for things like rent and phones and computers,” Schneider said. “Those had been just part of the court budget.”

Most of the cost of the system is payments for lawyers representing indigent Mainers. The budget allows 10 administrative positions to operate the system starting in July. Some positions are being transferred from the courts; others will be filled later in the year.

Commission members are worried that as a new, small agency, they will have difficulty in reaching lawmakers to express their concerns.

“We have to do more than just show up to the hearings and testify to get our message out,” said Sally Sutton, a commission member who works as a policy analyst at the University of Southern Maine. “Everybody is being cut and we have to plan how we are going to lobby on this.”

Other panel members agreed. Kim Moody, executive director of the Disability Rights Center, said the budget cut package of $438 million is hitting just about everybody, and as a new agency, it will be a struggle to make their arguments heard.

“The difficulty we are going to face is that we are probably an accounting error in this supplemental budget; $450,000 is not a whole lot,” Schneider said. “But, we are one of the few expenditures that is absolutely required. If the state wants to put people in jail, they need to provide that person with a lawyer.”

And that constitutional requirement is why Baldacci says the commission really should not worry. In an interview Wednesday, the governor said if the commission runs short of cash, he will submit a request for additional funding for the 2011 budget year to the Legislature.

“This is something that has to be done, but this is the best estimate we have from the courts on what is needed. That’s what’s in the budget,” he said.

Baldacci said every state agency needs to find better and more efficient ways to do their jobs through consolidation and “thinking outside the box.” He said as a new agency the commission has opportunities existing agencies may not have to implement new ideas.

Schneider, in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, stressed the commission has a lot to do in the months ahead with both court rules and state laws needing changes as the new system is implemented. He said the panel is seeking to make the new system more efficient and hopefully more effective.

“We will have it up and running July 1,” he said. “We have an RFP [request for proposal] out for a Web-based system for the lawyers to log in and file their bills electronically, eliminating the paper forms used now.”

Schneider said the commission plans to hold a public hearing for lawyers and others interested in the development of the new system. Members also plan to attend the budget hearing before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Jan. 8 to oppose the cut in their budget.

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