My Turn: Veto of legal service funds hurts little guy

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

L ast Tuesday, in what can only be deemed an attempt to further refine his message of lack of concern for the little guy, Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed $62,500 from the state budget earmarked for of the Alaska Legal Services Corp.

ALSC is a nonprofit with the singular purpose of reducing the legal consequences of poverty and providing legal assistance and equal access to the court system for individuals who would otherwise be unable to afford counsel.

The governor's position on his cuts to a program aimed at helping low-income Alaskans navigate the legal system was to state that the "state's support to this nonprofit organization has declined over the years." That sort of nonsensical reasoning is indicative of Murkowski's term in office; yet as an individual potently aware of the legal inequality in our state I remain dismayed at his cavalier attitude.

Murkowski asserts that "providing a grant to an organization that provides legal assistance to individuals is not a basic responsibility of state government." I would argue otherwise. Alaska courts are bound to provide an impartial and accessible forum for all persons, and our government is charged with protecting and ensuring due process and equality for all Alaskans.

For a government official to provide lip service on working for a better Alaska while simultaneously engaging in practices that erode the ability of everyday Alaskans to educate themselves and properly navigate the laws of our state is not only dishonest, it's downright immoral. It is the sort of behavior we've grown accustomed to in politics of late but something that many of us, in moving here from the Lower 48, thought we might escape.

Alexander Hamilton once said that "justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." The sum of $62,500 might mean only a little "belt-tightening" to the D.C. expats now circulating in Juneau and Anchorage, but it sure sends a potent message about the priority this administration places on the rights of working poor. It might well mean ALSC loses a branch office, or a couple of staff attorneys, or both, but it certainly means that deserving Alaskans who desperately need legal assistance will be met with a sign reading "closed due to budget cuts."

Low-income Alaskans aren't usually kicking out big campaign contributions, and so the groups that cater to their constitutional needs aren't generally first on the list to receive the administration's praise. If the governor's Web site is accurate, and he believes the opportunity and responsibility to make a better Alaska lies with all of us, perhaps he could set the example by leading. Perhaps he could "tighten another belt," or be a little more honest with himself and his staff about impact of legal services in peoples lives, even if it isn't popular and even if it isn't cost-effective. Our constitution might not always come cheap, but $62,500 isn't much.

• Janell Hafner is a lawyer employed at Reges & Boone, LLC, in Juneau.

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