Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told lawmakers that any more reductions to state attorneys will end up costing the state more, because the state’s legal needs are going up.
“The state’s legal position is more at risk than ever,” Wasden told lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) Thursday. He said the economic downturn is reducing his budget, but not his workload. “When the economy slows, legal work picks up.” He said there are several high profile legal battles the attorney general’s office is working on, including disputes surrounding the state’s wolf hunt, grazing leases, and tobacco litigation. He also said there’s been an increase in appeals of criminal decisions, and that people are more likely to sue or appeal during a recession because they may have nothing left to lose.
Wasden’s office hasn’t been immune to the reductions in state spending. “My office is stretched incredibly thin,” he said. His office took $433,000 in holdbacks in September, and faces another $310,000 in the holdbacks recommended by the governor last month. In the next budget, the attorney general’s office could face another $1.2 million in cuts, which is a 6.6 percent reduction. “My office is working on a razor thin margin,” Wasden said. He said all those cuts go to staff. “We don’t have program funds available for budget reductions … each of my holdbacks affect people.” His employees are scheduled to take 15 furlough days during the current fiscal year. “That’s the equivalent of closing my office for three weeks,” he said.
“We are fully aware of the financial sacrifices made the people of this state,” said Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. “That doesn’t leave our thoughts for a moment.”
The trouble with cutting the attorney general’s budget, Wasden said, is that he can’t ignore lawsuits filed against the state of Idaho, and that more legal cases will be handled by private lawyers. Those private lawyers charge much more than state lawyers—Wasden said a deputy attorney general’s fees start at $57 an hour, but outside lawyers ask for a minimum of $125 an hour.
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked Wasden if the perils he mentioned meant he was asking for a spending increase in a budget likely full of reductions. Wasden said no, adding, “We’ll have to share in the burden. No one’s ox should go ungored … We simply don’t have the choice of ignoring the lawsuits.”
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