Cuomo vetoes bill for NY state to fund legal services for the poor

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, pictured speaking during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, vetoed a bill late Saturday night that would have shifted the cost of indigent legal services from counties to the state. While Cuomo supports the idea, he said the bill passed by the Assembly and sent to him for a signature included funding for non-criminal defense legal services that did not need to be included and could not be paid for. File photo by Ray Stubblebine/UPI | License Photo

ALBANY, N.Y., Jan. 2 (UPI) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Saturday vetoed a bill that would have provided state funds for legal services for the poor because he said it went well beyond its stated purpose and any acceptable cost.

Cuomo shot down a bill that would have relieved the burden of cost for indigent legal services because its estimated $800 million per year price tag — to provide services well beyond representation in court for those who can’t afford it — appeared to him to be nothing more than a shift of costs from counties to the state.

New York’s state Assembly passed the bill in June and Cuomo had to either sign or veto it before midnight on Jan. 1. Members of the Assembly and Cuomo’s administration had been working on a compromise to pare down the services included in the funding bill but were unable to reach a deal before the deadline.

“The Legislature framed this bill as ‘indigent defense’ bill. It is not,” Cuomo wrote in a message with the veto. “This bill is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to shift costs from counties to state taxpayers under the guise of indigent defense.”

Currently, the state pays about 10 percent of the cost of indigent legal services based on 2010 spending levels. The vetoed bill would have slowly shifted responsibility for the services to the state, starting with an increase to 25 percent of costs on April 1, with the full cost shifted to the state by 2023.

The full cost of the bill would have covered legal expenses for criminal defense, but included other non-criminal legal work, such as family and surrogate court services. Services beyond criminal defense made up about $600 million in annual costs that a Cuomo spokesperson called “unnecessary” and said there was no way to pay for the new expenses.

Supporters of the bill called its veto a loss for the people, suggesting that the state taking on the cost of the full slate of legal services — an idea supported by progressives and conservatives both in and out of the Assembly — helps protect the constitutional rights of people with little access to the assets needed to defend themselves.

“We are all shocked that the Governor vetoed a bill that would have reduced racial disparities in the criminal justice system, helped ensure equal access to justice for all New Yorkers, provided improved public defense programs for those who cannot afford an attorney and much-needed mandate relief for counties,” said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association. “The governor refused to accept an independent oversight mechanism on state quality standards, and now, sadly tens of thousands of low-income defendants will pay the price.”


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