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Eye on Boise: Idaho losing money by cutting costs

Sun., Feb. 10, 2013

BOISE – When it comes to lawyers, some of Idaho’s budget cuts in recent years are proving penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Lawmakers heard from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden that cutting attorney positions has resulted in the state spending much more to hire outside lawyers.

“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,” Wasden told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “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 a day earlier during the budget hearing for the state appellate public defender’s office, which can’t turn down cases when it’s out of staff and instead has to contract with much pricier private lawyers.

Vick asked, “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.

Going after online commenters

The House State Affairs Committee last week rejected a proposal from Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, to create a “rebuttable presumption” that the identity of an online commenter must be disclosed when there’s a defamation or slander suit. Just two committee members favored introducing the bill.

“Anonymity in the Internet age gives a great deal of privacy to the blogger,” Hartgen told the committee. “It expands the concept of privacy in a way that had never really been used in anonymous comments before. But it leaves the object of the comment, the person that is being blogged about, with almost no recourse except to wince and snarl. … What was said about them lies out there in the blogosphere more or less forever.”

But committee members, including three lawyers on the committee, raised concerns about Hartgen’s bill, which he said was in response to a case in which a judge ordered The Spokesman-Review to reveal identifying information about an anonymous commenter, whose quickly deleted comment suggested a local GOP official had acted improperly.

The bill required disclosure except in cases where a judge rules that disclosure wouldn’t be in the public interest; committee members questioned that wording as well, saying judges already weigh that. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said, “I don’t think this soup is ready yet.”

Bill covers attacks on health workers

Idaho already has a law providing stiff felony penalties – up to 25 years in prison – for assault and battery on certain official personnel, including judges, police officers, prosecutors, bailiffs, prison or jail guards, parole officers, social workers, firefighters, Tax Commission agents, and emergency medical services workers. Now, Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, has introduced legislation to expand that to any health care worker.

“Given increased drug abuse problems and mental health issues, there’s an increased risk to individuals who are mandated to provide care,” said Malek, a former deputy Kootenai County prosecutor.

It’s the freshman lawmaker’s first bill.

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