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Maine indigent legal services under the microscope during supplemental budget

The joint appropriations committee hosted a public hearing Wednesday, when they received feedback regarding the court system and education.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After pushback from Republicans on the half-billion-dollar heating assistance package, the Maine legislature held a public hearing before easily passing the bill. 

Now legislators are reviewing the state's supplemental budget, starting with the appropriations committee. 

Lawmakers hosted a public hearing Wednesday at the State House in Augusta, where they discussed and received feedback on the supplemental budget, with a focus on funding for education and improving indigent legal services.

Legislators proposed moving $1 million from the state's general fund to the supplemental budget, with the intent to better fund Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services.

The proposal would pay attorneys $80 per hour as a reimbursement rate for indigent legal services. 

Justin Andrus, executive director of MCILS, said he has been asking the legislature for help for more than a year. During Wednesday's public hearing, he argued the reimbursement rate should be $150 per hour, as many of the attorneys involved in indigent legal services still work to keep their own offices open and keep up with their caseload.

He also said more lawyers are needed.

"We'd need 146 full-time attorneys—new attorneys to serve the caseload," Andrus said.

"You have prosecutions, defense, and judiciary, and all three pillars have to work for the criminal justice system to work," Shira Burns of the Maine Prosecutors' Association said.

Not having enough defense attorneys is bad for victims, she added.

"Prosecutors have to talk to their victims, so you're getting hopes up that a case can be resolved," Burns said.

Improving Maine's indigent legal services wasn't the only topic of discussion. Members of the public also shared their thoughts on education. 

"We heard from the Department [of Education] that they needed to make some adjustments to recognize some additional funding," Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said.

Millett serves on the appropriations and education committees. She called Wednesday's supplemental budget hearing "low key," with just a few recommended adjustments from the Department of Education, higher education scholarships, and the Maine State Library expansion. 

But, she said, she knows this isn't the only budget the committee will be looking at in the coming weeks.

"I expect to see much more discussion when we have the biannual," Millett said.

The appropriations committee has just over $2 million in supplemental budget funding to put toward education.

The public hearing for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' biannual budget proposal, in the amount of $10.3 billion, will likely be held in February. 

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