Sep. 29—The state agency responsible for providing legal counsel to low-income Mainers is moving forward with a $13.3 million request for emergency funding — but officials admit it's unlikely state leaders will agree to call a necessary special session.
Maine is the only state in the nation without a public defender's office. Although the state recently agreed to create its first team of public defense attorneys, most cases will be covered by private attorneys whom the state pays to represent Mainers who can't afford their own lawyers. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services oversees that list of attorneys.
But that list continues to dwindle, and Executive Director Justin Andrus has said he worries the commission will soon be unable to staff the state's thousands of cases.
"It's bad," Andrus said during the commission's monthly meeting Wednesday, reviewing county-level maps showing attorney shortages compared to need throughout the state. There are 164 attorneys taking new appointments in Maine, compared to 280 in January.
Andrus said he believes increasing the hourly rate from $80 to $150 would keep lawyers from leaving, and attract new and returning counsel.
"I don't see a road to retaining what we have or attracting anyone back, or attracting very many new people, unless the rate is more appropriate," Andrus said.
The commission voted unanimously Wednesday to send the $13.3 million request to the Department of Administrative and Financial Services before next week.
To get the new funding, either the governor or majorities of all four legislative caucuses would have to call a special session.
The commission also voted 5-2 to send lawmakers and the governor's office a letter advocating that they meet for a special session. And lawmakers on the Government Oversight Committee, which met with Andrus last week, will also send a letter expressing the urgent need to increase the hourly rate for attorneys on the commission's roster, although Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said Wednesday afternoon that the letter does not address a special session.
Commission members noted Wednesday that their request faces an uphill battle, especially with an election just around the corner.
"I think that the path to get to a special session is an unlikely one," commission member Roger Katz said. "Having said that, I think the need is there. The urgency is there. And if we're doing our job, we ought to be yelling that out as loudly as we can, as early as we can. ... I don't see the downside for asking for a special session."
Members Michael Carey and Donald Alexander voted against the motion to send state leaders a letter, although they voted in favor of submitting a supplemental request.
"I feel quite strongly that we shouldn't be asking — we shouldn't be making a political statement, to call a special session," said Carey. "We're a public body, we're funded publicly, and I don't think we should be calling on the Legislature to take an act to call a special session, or calling on the governor to take an act to call a special session."
Member Ron Schneider said during Wednesday's meeting that the commission's issues are the result of years of underfunding.
"We are where we are because of what we asked for not being placed in the budget, not being appropriated," said commission member Ron Schneider. "We are where we are because of that historical trend. And I believe we should ask for the $13.3 million ... if the Legislature and the governor decides we really want to stand behind this, they go into a special session. If not, we'll suffer the consequences."