The Daily Pulse:

Legislature Again Showing Its Disdain for the Poor

We already know the legislature doesn't give a damn about the poor, but now it's trying to curtail legal representation for those with no money. As the Tennessee Bar Association reports today, Oak Ridge's Sen. Randy McNally has slipped a budget amendement onto an appropriations bill that would de-fund indigent civil representation in the state and roll everything onto the backs of the already overworked and underfunded public defenders.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, has proposed to roll civil legal representation funding in with the indigent counsel programs, strip Tennessee courts of funding for indigent representation and place the administration of both the civil and criminal indigent representation in the state district public defender's office. ... Advocates have already identified a number of "weaknesses" in the proposal:

Administration of the civil indigents representation fund, which provides $3.3 million to the state's four legal aid offices, would be transferred as part of the plan. Funding for the civil fund would be optional after the constitutionally mandated counsel for indigents, guardians ad litem and experts had been paid. ...

• The state public defenders office has no expertise in several of the appointed matters which are civil - mental health commitments, appointments of guardians ad litem and counsel in parental termination cases and child support contempt matter or counsel in dependency and neglect and unruly matters.

• Counsel for criminally accused indigents are often appointed because of conflicts with public defenders, creating a dilemma when paired with public defender administration.

• The proposal transfers the responsibility for paying appointed counsel, but makes no provision for transferring the administrative costs associated with administering the funds, perhaps meaning program funds would be further eaten up by administrative costs.

The proposal would, on its face, save a whopping $3.3 million. And, as pointed out above, it would likely cost a whole lot more administratively, ensuring that any "budget savings" are pure farce. What the bill would actually do is make it even harder for poor people to make use of the justice system. 

The bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Fiance Committee at 3 p.m. We'll keep you posted.

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