MACo: Don’t Force Counties to Fund State Programs

MACo Policy Analyst Natasha Mehu testified in opposition to SB 1134, Criminal Procedure – Initial Appearance Before a District Court Commissioner – Costs for Appointed Legal Representation, to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on March 23, 2016.

This bill explicitly authorizes the Judiciary to charge local governments for any cost overruns in the appointed attorney program. Thus, the legislation threatens an unfunded and unnecessary mandate on local governments, holding counties responsible for costs totally outside their control.

From the MACo testimony,

This bill would have counties paying for cost overruns that are not within their control and that cannot be budgeted for in advance. Counties do not hire, manage, oversee, or schedule the appointed attorneys. All these functions are under the state Judiciary. This looming cost-shift creates much uncertainty for local governments as they prepare and manage their own budgets.

SB 1134 also sets an unwelcome precedent for the state to shift excess costs for state programs to local governments rather than addressing any deficiencies directly. The Maryland Court of Appeals held that an indigent defendant has a right to state-furnished counsel at an initial appearance before a District Court Commissioner. This is a state obligation that should be appropriately state funded. Potential costs should not be shifted to local governments who play no role in these functions.

The bill does not state the amount of money for which the program would have to exceed for local government payments to be triggered. This is concerning because the Governor could reduce or eliminate the budget in future years for the appointed attorney program and under this bill counties would still have to pay any excess.

Finally, as the program has come in under the $10 million budget it is not necessary to have counties as a backup for cost overruns. In fiscal 2015, the Judiciary spent approximately $8.1 million on hourly wages and travel reimbursements for the Appointed Attorneys Program. The Judiciary projects spending $8.8 million in fiscal 2016. There is no reason to anticipate the program would greatly increase in costs in fiscal 2017 or future years.

SB 1134 shifts unmanageable costs to counties, rather than resolving the underlying justice issues triggering those costs. For these reasons, MACo urges an UNFAVORABLE report on SB 1134.

For more on 2016 MACo legislation, visit the Legislative Database.