The office of state attorneys who provide public legal services say the budget passed Tuesday by the Montana House of Representatives does not do enough to stem what they describe as over-burdensome workloads.
The surprise unanimous vote from the House to pass the state’s general fund budget bill (HB2) leaves a lot of uncertainty. As Matt Gouras of the Associated Press reports, “Both sides agreed to endorse the budget as-is, without long fights over dozens of proposed amendments.” Democrats, Gouras writes, “decided to support the spending plan anyway because it is a ‘great product’ overall.”
Those amendments still exist, though, and many will now surely be debated in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
Senator Mitch Tropila (D-Great Falls) sits on that committee and says one of his top priorities is adding more resources to the state Public Defender’s office.”Whether or not (the budget) was a 100 to nothing vote or a 51 to 49 vote, I’ve got a job to do when House Bill 2 reaches the Senate on Thursday,” he said.
The Office of the State Public Defender has been operating since 2006, following a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union saying the previous system, run by counties, was not giving fair defense to those not able to afford their own.
“They were underfunded from day one,” said Representative Steve Gibson (R-East Helena), chair of the House subcommittee which put together the budget on the public defender’s office. Attorneys in the office have very high caseloads; at any given time an individual attorney may be working on hundreds of cases and they make far less than attorneys with similar experience working for other state agencies or the private sector.
Gibson points out the budget as passed by the House does add more resources to the Public Defende’rs Office, by about $5 million dollars. He says that funding adds eight new full-time employees to the office, all attorneys, to cut down on the workload. The current budget also includes raises for the public defenders–one of the only groups of state employees to have raises approved so far.
But Chief Public Defender Bill Hooks says his office requested 37 more full-time employees, which would include attorneys, support staff and investigators, “and we felt that was a number we really needed. That was a number we felt justified in asking for.”
Senator Tropila, wants to go even further, hiring 60 additional full-time employees to give the additional support staff he believes the office needs. He says he will work for that when the budget hits the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
“Just to continue to throw (in) new FTEs is not going to solve the problem in my mind,” Gibson said. “It’s a structural problem, what types of cases should they have?”
Gibson said a bill is being considered which would call for a study of the Office of the Public Defender over the next legislative interim.