Telling someone you make the same amount of money today as you did in 1999 will generate shock and, in many cases, lead to sympathy.
Telling someone that you make $50 an hour will generate something far different than sympathy.
And telling someone you just got a 10-percent raise will lead to congratulations.
The Jan. 27 BDN editorial, “ To ensure justice for all, lawyers’ fees must rise,” highlights one of the many challenges facing our state: long-frozen compensation rates for attorneys providing constitutionally required representation. That is why Gov. Paul LePage included a 10 percent hourly raise for attorneys representing indigent clients in his biennial budget. That brought the total increase to nearly $5.5 million over fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
That is a significant amount in any budget but especially so when other programs are being reduced, reformed or eliminated. Since the Commission on Indigent Legal Services was separated from the Judicial Branch, it has been chronically underfunded. That is why the governor used his emergency powers to fill the hole at the end of the last fiscal year.
A large portion of the proposed funding increase is necessary to simply keep up with the increasing costs of the commission. Fiscal responsibility begins with paying your bills, whether it is the amount we owe Maine hospitals or the cost of providing attorneys as the Constitution requires.
LePage recognizes that attorneys who represent indigent clients play an important role in our adversarial system. Unfortunately, the editorial looked at the issue in a vacuum. It did not mention that a new assistant attorney general or assistant district attorney makes less than $45,000. Don’t Mainers deserve properly compensated attorneys prosecuting accused criminals?
The editorial did not mention that pay has been frozen for state employees — and many in the private sector — for years. Why should criminal attorneys receive a 50 percent pay raise when we are asking others to go without?
And the comparison to the federal rates of $125 per hour for criminal defense is a false one. It is easy to pay handsomely when you are not constrained by a constitutionally required balanced budget like Maine.
Instead of solutions, the editorial accused the governor of not “go[ing] far enough” and challenged the Legislature to recognize a “higher principle of democracy.” It is easy to spend tax dollars: You run out of money long before you run out of ideas.
That is why it is so surprising the editorial did not comment on the administration’s attempt to see whether we can provide these services more efficiently. The governor’s Office of Policy and Management, with former Attorney General William Schneider leading the initiative, is undertaking a complete review of the existing indigent legal services model to see if we can improve the system and lower costs.
A number of different examples exist: the attorney-hourly rate structure, a public defender system, contracted attorneys or firms or various hybrids. The current system has required emergency action time and again to prevent it from running out of money. With the current proposed budget, we would spend more than $27 million in total for indigent legal services.
It is time to review this system and determine whether the state is getting the most for its money. The editorial did a fine job highlighting an area where Maine can improve, but papering over problems with tax money is no longer an option.
And 10 percent is still a pretty good raise.
Michael Cianchette is Gov. Paul LePage’s chief counsel.