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Public defenders get more funding

FRANKFORT — A legislative panel dug up $4.7 million Monday for the agency that represents poor criminal defendants in court, potentially averting a shutdown of the Department of Public Advocacy next month.

That fiscal shot in the arm is one of several provisions contained in a revision to the state's budget approved Monday by the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

The Department of Public Advocacy sued the state in June, saying it didn't have enough money to fulfill its constitutional obligation to represent poor clients after its budget was cut by more than $2 million last year. At the same time, the number of clients it has been asked to represent has increased.

The newly proposed money would come from the state's rainy-day fund.

Public Advocate Ed Monahan, who leads the agency, said the appropriation would be enough to get public defenders through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. He has been warning legislators that public defenders would run out of money by the end of April without an infusion of cash.

"I am pleased that the General Assembly has been responsive to our needs to be part of ensuring public safety," Monahan said.

Monahan said he doesn't know whether there is enough support in both chambers to get the measure passed.

The $4.7 million was just one provision in House Bill 433, which helps clear up problems with a budget bill passed by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear last month. The measure now goes to the full House for its consideration.

Meanwhile, a judge said Monday that he would rule "in the next few days" on whether to dismiss the lawsuit that public defenders filed against the state alleging they've been given inadequate funding to handle excessive case loads.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate also set a hearing for March 25 to consider whether the state public defender's system can cut back on its case load because it's running out of money. If the bill passes both chambers by Friday, the lawsuit will become moot.

Lawmakers cut the agency's budget by $2.3 million to $37.8 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

The department 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 Monday that "it is highly unlikely that an execution would be scheduled in this fiscal year, which is the time frame the public defenders are discussing in their request."

The public advocacy department had scaled back its operations and refused certain types of cases to stretch its funding. But in September, Wingate ruled that the agency could not refuse to take cases and that its reductions were premature.

Case loads for Kentucky's public defenders are inching toward nearly 500 new cases a year for each attorney. That exceeds the number considered ethically appropriate within the profession, Monahan has said.

Other states — including Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts and Alabama — have faced similar lawsuits.

Also included in HB 433 is a provision that would give certain elementary schools priority for bonds issued for school construction. Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, objected to the measure, saying it gave preference to certain school districts. Later, Moberly filed an amendment that would direct the Department of Education to develop a priority list based on need.

The bill also included $100,000 for Saint Joseph Hospital to restore funding for a mobile health clinic that was cut from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services budget last year.