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Eye On Boise

When state budget cuts prove penny-wise but pound-foolish…

When it comes to lawyers, some of Idaho’s budget cuts in recent years are proving penny-wise but pound-foolish. For a second straight day, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning heard that cutting attorney positions has resulted in the state spending much more to hire outside lawyers.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told JFAC, “The minute a state entity hires outside counsel, the meter starts running at a minimum of $125 an hour. And recently it has been as high as $250 an hour. The median salary of an attorney in my office is about $35.73 an hour,” he said, and that attorney ”works on dozens of cases. … So no matter how you look at it, the price more than doubles once you walk outside the Statehouse doors to get outside counsel.”

Wasden’s budget this year is still $1.5 million less than it was in 2009. But state agencies in the past year contracted with outside attorneys for $6.9 million worth of legal work. “Now, some of those are for areas of special expertise,” Tara Orr, chief of the administration and budget division for the Attorney General’s office, told JFAC. “But what we found was there was about $6.5 million in general legal work being done.”

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, asked, “Am I to understand this correctly, they only contracted for that roughly $6.4 million of outside counsel because you didn’t have attorneys that were available?” Orr responded, “Yes, that would be correct.”

In addition, the Attorney General’s office has had to turn down 15 requests for prosecution assistance from cities and counties so far this year for lack of available lawyers to work on the cases. Wasden said, “I encourage the Legislature to convene an interim committee to identify opportunities to bring more of the state’s legal services in-house.”

The same issue was highlighted yesterday during the budget hearing for the State Appellate Public Defender, which can’t turn down cases when it’s out of staff and instead has to contract with much pricier private lawyers.

Vick asked, if that much money is being spent, and Wasden has eight vacant and unfunded attorney positions, and agencies need the work done, “Why can’t you just hire those people and do the work for them?”

JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “Because we haven’t given them the spending authority to do so,” including the appropriations.  Said Cameron, “It rests squarely on our shoulders.”

Wasden agreed. “We cannot go forward without authority from this body, and that’s what we are here asking for.” His budget request for next year seeks a 9 percent increase in state general funds, 5.3 percent in total funds; Gov. Butch Otter is recommending just a 1.6 percent increase in general funds and 1.7 percent in total funds.

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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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