Bill Seeks Student Loan Assistance For Public Lawyers

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Eric Clark has a law degree and a full-time job, but that wasn't enough to enable him to live on his own. Faced with big debt from his student loans, the Bowling Green public defender moved back home with his parents.

"I couldn't make ends meet," said Clark, 36, who supported legislation Wednesday that would create a student loan assistance program for Kentucky's public defenders, prosecutors and civil legal services attorneys.

The bill later won approval from the House Judiciary Committee without dissent.

Clark, who moved out on his own last year when he got married, said the prospect of struggling to pay off student loans is making it tougher for young attorneys to pass up better-paying jobs with private law firms.

"The reality is just getting bleaker and bleaker for people to go into public service," Clark said after a Capitol rally for the legislation.

The assistance program would be funded by diverting 2 percent of the court costs that now go to the state's General Fund. The Kentucky Higher Education Authority would run the program, and the amount available would be capped at $1.2 million each year.

Under the bill, full-time public defenders, prosecutors or civil legal services attorneys - whose starting salaries range from $32,000 to $37,000 yearly - could receive up to $6,000 a year to help pay off student loans. Attorneys working part time in those offices could get up to $3,000 yearly.

Ernie Lewis, head of the Department of Public Advocacy and a leading supporter of the bill, said his agency loses, on average, four attorneys monthly "because they can't afford to practice law with salaries that they are receiving."

Lewis said some young lawyers work second jobs, including delivering pizzas, to supplement their income to help pay off students loans. The state would benefit from the program by having experienced lawyers manning those public offices, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, said similar bills passed the House and Senate in past years but got caught up in budget disputes.

"I think there's support for that bill in both chambers," he said in an interview. "There may be some question about whether it will done this session or in the budget session" next year.

Rep. Stan Lee, a Lexington Republican who is running for attorney general, wondered how the proposal would be perceived by some in a state with historically high poverty rates compared to much of the nation.

"I'm sure there are a lot of citizens out there who will look at these salaries and ask themselves, `Well why can't they afford to pay their loan back,"' he said in an interview.

Lee, who voted for the bill in committee but said his support wasn't guaranteed when it comes to the full House, said the state needs to recruit good lawyers to prosecute and defend cases.

"There's certainly a balancing test there," he said.

Clark said his student loan payment was $660 a month after graduating from law school in 1997 - eating up more than 40 percent of his take-home pay in his first job.

Now, he makes about $48,000 a year, but still has about $44,000 in college loans to pay off. Eight of the 10 attorneys working in his office have student loans to pay off that range from $12,000 to more than $100,000, he said.

Clark said he likes helping those unable to afford legal assistance, but knows that he has friends making $100,000 or more a year in private law practices.

"It is tempting to do that, especially when you're recently married, thinking about having a family," Clark said.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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