Counties seek state cushion from costly legal bills
BY JOE MAHONEY CNHI State Reporter
Rome Sentinel Co.
Around The State
Leaders of county governments are heaving a sigh of relief after both houses of the Legislature passed budget bills that would require the state to provide relief to counties for increases in the pay rates for lawyers assigned to represent indigent individuals. Derailing Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to make the counties responsible for the pay increases for assigned counsel has been a high priority for the New York State Association of Counties. Counties across the state have faced challenges in attracting and retaining lawyers to work as so-called 18B attorneys — those agreeing to accept assignments to represent low-income people in the courts. As a result of legislation now under review, those lawyers could soon be earning as much as $164 per hour. The assigned counsel rate — now set at $60 an hour for misdemeanor cases and $75 an hour for felonies — has remained unchanged since 2004. If the counties had to pay for the increased rates, they estimate they would have incurred as much as $150 million in new expenses. “As we enter the final stages of budget negotiations, New Yorkers are counting on budget negotiators to protect property taxpayers,” said Michael Zurlo, who is both president of NYSAC and the Clinton County administrator. The counties have been arguing that without properly funding the 18B lawyers, the progress made so far in improving indigent legal services could be reversed. The budget measure passed by the Assembly would ensure the state reimburses counties for expenses associated with the pay increases. The Senate legislation would increase assigned counsel rates by increasing the rate to $164 for all counties, allow for the court to provide additional compensation in extraordinary circumstances, and provide that expenses in excess of the current rate will be reimbursed to the counties by the state sharing the costs from the rate increases with the counties. The Assembly budget offers $198 million for grants to counties for expenses related to increased counsel rates to improve the quality of representation available to people eligible for assigned counsel. The Assembly also added increased aid for evidence discovery work, providing $100 million each for legal defense programs and county prosecutors to help them deal with the avalanche of paperwork needed to be accomplished after arrests are made. New investments would also be made in anti-gun violence programs. “The Assembly Majority is committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers are able to seek the justice they deserve, and to keeping our communities safe from the scourge of gun violence,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-the Bronx, said in a statement. As for aid to public schools, one of the biggest areas of state spending, the Rural Schools Association signaled it was pleased both houses support the establishment of the universal school meals program, requiring all schools participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast program, which serves breakfast and lunch at no cost to students regardless of their family income level. The association also highlighted the fact their plans reject the governor’s “onerous requirement” such as a proposed mandate that Foundation Aid be used for high impact tutoring even when there is little local need for that service. Republicans, who because they are in a distinct minority in both houses have little clout at the statehouse, argued the measures pushed through by Democrats are bound to make New York increasingly unaffordable. Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, voiced opposition to the Senate Democrats’ proposal to put up $1.7 billion to pay for health care for undocumented immigrants. “At a time when legal, law-abiding residents are struggling with their own health care costs and everyday cost of living, this is an absolute insult and this money should be used to help those individuals and families first,” Stec said in a statement. Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Otsego County, said the Senate Democratic budget bills would end up spending $9 billion more than the $227 billion plan advanced by Hochul. “This level of spending is unsustainable and the lack of fiscal restraint is driving businesses and families from our state,” Oberacker said, adding: “There is nothing to improve public safety – even the governor’s watered down bail reform changes have been erased and more criminal-friendly policies added.” But Senate Democrats hailed their legislation as a plan built on “transformative investments” by providing an 8.5% cost of living adjustment for some healthcare workers while raising the minimum wage and then indexing it to the annual cost of living.