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BOISE — Lawmakers took a closer look Tuesday at next year’s proposed public defense budget, which is set to double if the Legislature approves the governor’s request.

Gov. Brad Little is asking for $11.9 million in 2019-2020 for the Public Defense Commission, compared to this year’s $5.8 million. The biggest chunk of this increase would be $3.6 million in grants to counties to help them comply with new workload standards lawmakers, approved earlier this month, capping public defenders at handling 210 non-capital felony cases and 520 misdemeanor cases a year.

Idaho’s public defense system has been under scrutiny since 2015, when the ACLU of Idaho filed a lawsuit contending the state’s system is unconstitutionally inadequate. The suit is expected to go to trial this spring. Meanwhile, lawmakers have been boosting funding and looking at ways to help counties improve their representation of poor defendants.

Commission Executive Director Kathleen Elliott highlighted Idaho’s history of providing representation to people who can’t afford lawyers. The right to counsel is in the state Constitution as well as the federal one, and a 1923 Idaho Supreme Court ruling required the state to provide counsel to poor defendants, 40 years before the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright U.S. Supreme Court case made it a requirement nationally.

“There is a growing recognition of the Sixth Amendment and Idaho is and has historically been a leader in this recognition,” she said.

The budget request also includes $83,400 to hire a research analyst, who Elliott said would go over data for the commission and also identify areas where the state needs to gather more information.

“This position is absolutely necessary and I think it’s a bit overdue,” Elliott said.

Elliott also said the $15,300 in the budget for employee raises would help, noting that the commission’s lawyers are paid less than lawyers in other state jobs.

“Each member of our team is paid less than other positions of likeness across the state, and I as a new director am very concerned with retaining the employees we have,” she said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.

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