Cuomo's veto angers counties, lawmakers

ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision to veto a bill that would have forced the state to pay for criminal defenders for the poor has angered county officials and state lawmakers, with the sides now left to try and salvage a compromise.

The bill would have gradually shifted the cost for defending the poor from counties to the state, with the state picking up the full cost beginning in 2023.

But Cuomo vetoed the legislation late on New Year's Eve, faulting lawmakers for not including a way to pay for it. The cost, according to Cuomo's veto, would have been $800 million a year when fully phased in.

The move angered county governments, who have struggled to cover the cost of indigent legal defense, and public defenders, whose caseloads have grown to untenable levels in some areas of the state.

And the timing ensured the Legislature, which passed the bill unanimously in June, couldn't override the veto before the New Year.

Cuomo said he would introduce his own plan in "the coming months." Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said Wednesday that his conference will work with Cuomo to try and strike a deal.

"The objective is not to throw something to the governor to hope he can veto it so you guys can see a fight between the Legislature and the governor," Heastie said. "What we really want to do is get to a point where we can do something that will address the need of legal services and also helps out the counties."

The bill stemmed in part from a landmark 2014 legal settlement, in which the state agreed to pick up some public defender costs in five counties -- Schuyler, Suffolk, Onondaga, Washington and Ontario.

The settlement ended a long-running lawsuit backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union that claimed the state chronically underfunded the indigent legal defense system. It required the state to pay for attorneys to represent poor defendants at arraignments, among other conditions.

Cuomo's veto message said the bill went further than that and included "absolutely no funding stream to pay for it."

"I cannot increase the taxes of every taxpayer in this State to fund existing and future legal defense work in counties and with no accountability measures, nor can I dramatically increase the State's financial burden outside of the State's budgetary process or its financial plan," Cuomo wrote.

"This bill blindly shoulders the State with an $800 million annual expense without any funding or plan to support it."

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, Steuben County, said it's not fair for the state to cover costs in five counties and not the others.

"What about other counties facing similar financial stress?" Palmesano said in a statement. "The governor had a chance to promote fairness, protect municipalities, provide property tax relief and uphold due process. He failed.”
Cuomo's veto also drew criticism from the NYCLU, whose executive director, Donna Lieberman, called the bill the "most important criminal justice reform legislation in memory."

“He has rejected a groundbreaking and bipartisan fix to our deeply flawed public defense system and left in place the status quo, in which the state violates the rights of New Yorkers every day and delivers unequal justice," Lieberman said in a statement.


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