They helped 50,000 with free legal aid last year. Bevin wants to cut their budget.

Matt Bevin explains why he wants to cut all funding for 70 programs

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin explained to lawmakers why he has proposed cutting all funding for 70 government programs during his budget address on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018 in Frankfort, Ky.
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Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin explained to lawmakers why he has proposed cutting all funding for 70 government programs during his budget address on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018 in Frankfort, Ky.

Directors of the state’s civil legal aid programs warned in a joint letter Thursday that Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed state budget would leave thousands of low-income Kentuckians without access to essential legal assistance.

Bevin’s spending plan would eliminate $1.365 million over two years that helps fund the state’s four civil legal aid programs, which together help more than 50,000 Kentuckians get access to legal assistance each year. Their clients often include veterans, the disabled and victims of domestic violence.

Unlike public defenders, who work in criminal cases, these programs serve people who need help in civil cases, such as a tenant’s dispute with a landlord or a senior citizen snookered in a financial scam, and could otherwise not afford legal counsel.

“The loss of this funding would mean less attorneys representing less clients,” said Robert Johns, executive director of AppalReD Legal Aid, which serves Eastern and south-central Kentucky. “We’re already turning large numbers away, and this would cause the problem to be worse.”

If state funding is eliminated, the programs would be forced to severely curtail the number of people they could help, officials said.

“We’re saddened that there’s people who need our help that we aren’t going to be able to lend a hand to,” said Jillian Beach, communications manager for Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, one of the four legal aid programs.

Beach said the legal aid programs played a major role in helping hundreds of former clients of Eric Conn, a Kentucky lawyer who swindled millions from the federal government as he represented Eastern Kentuckians in disability cases. The benefits of about 900 former clients of Conn were jeopardized because of suspicion that the cases Conn submitted for them included fraudulent information from four doctors.

The programs are already forced to turn away more than half of Kentuckians eligible for help because of a lack of resources, according to the website of the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission.

“We just simply can’t meet the need,” Johns said.

The Kentucky House and Senate will use Bevin’s budget proposal as a guide as they craft a final version of the state budget in coming months.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Friday he was not aware of the Legal Aid Network of Kentucky’s concerns about state funding.

He said legislative staffers are still in the process of getting details from the governor’s staff about the 70 programs Bevin proposed to slash from the state budget. Eliminating funding for legal aid and the 69 other programs would save the state $85 million a year, or less than one percent of the state’s overall budget.

According to the joint letter, representatives of the legal aid programs have been talking with key legislative leaders, urging them to see the value of their programs.

Johns said he believes legal aid has strong support on both sides of the aisle.

“Civil legal aid is vitally important,” he said. “We provide an important service for the constituents of the legislature.”

House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, left, and Senate President Robert Stivers comment on Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget on Jan. 16, 2018.

Reporter Jack Brammer contributed to this story.

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @​HLWright