Financially strapped public defenders would be able to keep the lights on a bit longer under a spending plan approved by House lawmakers on Tuesday.
That plan, containing dozens of earmarks, would provide $4.7 million to the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, the agency that employs the state’s public defenders. The funding would be sufficient to keep public defenders in the state’s courtrooms through the remainder of the fiscal year.
The spending measure, which also includes authorization for a variety of construction projects, passed on a 77-18 vote. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Some House lawmakers said they were surprised by the addons to a frugal spending plan approved by lawmakers last month.
“I thought we were broke,” said state Rep. Addia Wuchner, RBurlington. “If we had a windfall, I’d like to know when it came in.”
Blaming the ailing economy for drying up revenues, lawmakers last month approved raising the state’s tax on cigarettes by 30 cents a pack and imposing a 6 percent retail sales tax on alcohol. Together the taxes are projected to generate $179.4 million a year to help alleviate a $456.1 million budget shortfall.
Lawmakers also transferred money from the state’s “rainy day” fund and cut spending to offset the remainder of the shortfall.
The issue of funding for the Department of Public Advocacy has spread from the Capitol to the courtroom. The agency filed a lawsuit alleging that the state is providing insufficient funding that is creating excessive caseloads for public defenders.
Public defenders want Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate to order the state to provide adequate funding or allow them to withdraw from cases. Wingate dismissed the lawsuit on Tuesday, opening the way for a quick appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Department of Public Advocacy spokesman Jessie W. Luscher released a statement last week saying when funding runs out in May, public defenders will “be unable to provide any representation whatsoever in any court.”
The agency sent a letter last week asking Gov. Steve Beshear to suspend any executions in the state until the budget crisis passes.
Beshear spokesman Jay Blanton said Tuesday that the governor is working with lawmakers to try to appropriate the necessary funding for the agency. Blanton said it’s “highly unlikely” that any executions would be scheduled before the funding issue is resolved.
Caseloads for Kentucky’s public defenders are inching toward nearly 500 new cases per year for each attorney, which exceeds the number considered ethically appropriate within the profession, said Ed Monahan, head of the Department of Public Advocacy.
Lawmakers opted Tuesday to give an additional $4.7 million to prosecutors at the urging of Republican state Rep. Brad Montell of Shelbyville. Montell complained that they also have been hit hard by funding cuts.
The spending measure also provides money to build schools, expand industrial parks, construct an airport runway, and buy an assortment of items, including a $1.6 million airplane for Somerset Community and Technical College.