ATLANTA - A Senate committee on Friday approved a package of bills that would change how the state's public defender system operates because legislative leaders are frustrated about the program's money problems.
The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council's officials have asked lawmakers for $9.5 million in the state's midyear budget adjustment, saying they were promised the money to keep from running dry before the new budget year kicks in July 1.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Preston Smith, R-Rome, has been highly critical of the council's request - and what some lawmakers consider lax control over how the money is spent - and sponsored some of the bills that cleared his committee Friday.
"One thing that's clear is that you can't spend money like a drunken sailor on shore leave and then cry to the Legislature," he said. "I think we're being asked about how deep are we going to dig into the taxpayers' pockets."
Mr. Smith also criticized the $1.2 million price tag so far for Fulton County courthouse slaying defendant Brian Nichols' ongoing defense that includes 4,000 hours of billed legal work and four attorneys working on the case.
"I doubt very seriously that O.J. Simpson had it that well," he said.
Several bills seek to increase the voice of county commissioners in the indigent defense system since local governments add about $60 million a year to the state funding.
Senate Bill 141 would add four county commissioners to the existing 11-member Public Defender Standards Council.
Senate Bill 140 would allow the governor to appoint two county commissioners for panels that fill public defender openings .
Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, questioned whether adding commissioners to the positions would politicize the process since public defenders can represent offenders in heinous crimes that local voters would prefer not to see defended - especially with their tax money.
"My concern is you put an elected official in a position to publicly attack a public defender, who's already doing a job that's already disdained by the community," he said.
Like the other bills passed out of committee Friday, Senate Bill 142 will be voted on soon by the full Senate. The bill would require any local public defenders' office to receive approval and funding from county commissions before hiring additional defenders, deputies, investigators or other employees.
Sen. John Wiles sponsored a measure, Senate Resolution 246, that would create a legislative study committee to consider whether to get rid of the current system and try again.
"I think we really need to have a hard look at this and come together to have a new proposal," he said.
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GOVERNOR MIGHT CONTROL FUNDS
The committee approved six bills dealing with the public defender council, which was set up three years ago to address concerns that Georgia was not providing enough funding to meet the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of legal assistance for every defendant.
One measure approved by the committee, Senate Bill 139, would move the council out of the judicial branch of state government into the executive branch so the governor would have more control over the group's annual budget requests.
The governor forwards funding requests from judicial agencies untouched to the Legislature for review, unlike other state departments that receive closer scrutiny.
- Morris News Service