AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unanimously recommended the state commission that pays attorneys to defend low-income Mainers be given an additional $1.85 million so it can pay lawyers through June.
The Indigent Legal Defense Commission is responsible for paying attorneys who represent poor people charged with crimes and facing jail time and low-income parents in danger of losing their children.
“The commission is very grateful that the Judiciary Committee supported our supplemental budget request,” John Pelletier, executive director of the commission, said in a telephone interview following the vote. “I think the members’ support reflects their understanding that despite the state’s budget shortfall, Maine is constitutionally obligated to provide attorneys for indigent defendants and they are determine the state should meet that obligation.”
If the Legislature rejects the committee’s recommendation, the commission would run out of money in May, Pelletier told the committee Tuesday afternoon during a work session.
It was the same message he and commission Chairman David Mitchell delivered to the Appropriations Committee on Jan. 22.
Mitchell said the anticipated shortfall was because the commission was not fully funded two years ago when a budget was passed in 2011 rather than a dramatic increase in the number of cases it is handling.
“The state now faces a situation where the commission’s well will be bone dry on May 1, 2013,” Mitchell said in written testimony submitted last week.
“Due to the two-week turnaround in reviewing and paying submitted vouchers, this means the commission will be unable to pay any vouchers submitted after mid-April.”
Pelletier said only about $400,000 of the money requested was due to an increase in costs that were not budgeted. He attributed that increase to a 25 percent increase reported by the Department of Health and Human Services in the number of children in foster care.
The commission was in a similar financial position last year, Pelletier said.
Gov. Paul LePage found $914,000 in June so lawyers would be paid in a timely manner.
The governor’s spokeswoman did not rule out a similar scenario this year.
“At the end of fiscal year 2012, the governor used his contingency account and other emergency funding powers to close [the commission’s] shortfall,” she said in an email on Jan. 23. “For fiscal year 2013, there were not enough savings available after the revenue reforecast to budget for the continued growth in [indigent legal services]. However, as agencies continue to work on savings initiatives, the governor may be able to again fund [the commission] outside of the budget process.”
Pelletier said last week that about 500 attorneys accept court-appointed cases and the vast majority of them are in small or solo practices.
“The 400 small businesses whose attorneys provide essential and constitutionally mandated representation cannot sustain a delay in payment exceeding two months,” he said in his written testimony.
Bangor attorney Richard Hartley, who is president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Tuesday that his members need the Legislature to heed the recommendation of the Judiciary Committee.
“It’s good to hear the committee recognizes the importance of this issue,” he said. “There are many criminal defense attorneys across Maine who will be unable to pay their bills if the budget does not include funds for their payment so they can continue to do this important work.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, indigent defendants facing jail or prison time have been entitled to legal representation. That means lawyers must be paid for by the government, either state or federal, that brings the charges. Currently, indigent adults and juveniles facing incarceration are entitled to be represented. The state also pays for attorneys to represent parents in child protective cases and people facing involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital who are indigent.
The commission consistently has been underfunded since its creation in 2009 due to the state’s ongoing budget crisis, Pelletier told the committee Tuesday.
According to Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, LePage funded the commission in his proposed budget at the level requested for the biennium that begins July 1.
The governor’s budget did not, however, include the raise in the hourly rate set by the commission. Commissioners agreed last year to r aise the hourly rate rate from $50 per hour to $75 by 2015. LePage’s budget would give lawyers a $5 per hour increase in two years.
Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, has submitted a bill that would require the Legislature to fund the commission at a level that would allow lawyers who represent poor Mainers to receive their first pay raise since 1999.