Walsh bill would direct part of weed tax to public defender costs

Counties strugging to pay for indigent defense

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, is hoping to redirect marijuana tax revenue from the state down to the county level to better fund indigent defense. With the cost of paying public defenders, along with additional costs of mental evaluations, juries and more, Walsh believes that counties are struggling to pay for it all.

“Gradually at first, and sharply in the last several years, the state has pulled away and stopped reimbursing the counties for this cost,” said Walsh. “The counties are bearing all or nearly all of indigent defense costs. If you talk to commissioners, you hear that this is one of the fastest growing costs for the county.”

In a pre-filed bill submitted Dec. 18, Walsh proposes that 33.3 percent of funds from marijuana tax would be returned to counties pro rata (in proportion to their marijuana sales), which must then be used to fund legal services for indigent defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer.

Walsh said he chose marijuana revenue because he believes the state takes an unfairly large portion of it for Washington’s general fund, and that counties were originally promised they would benefit more from the revenue from legalization.

“When we legalized marijuana, the policymakers at the state level promised to local jurisdictions that they would share in the tax revenue from legal sales. That turned out to be a promise not kept,” said Walsh. “While the counties and cities do get some piece of the state tax revenue from the sale of legal marijuana, it’s ridiculously small. In some cases counties get a few thousand dollars, in others a few hundred. That, to me, is wrong; it’s just not good policy.”

According to Walsh, the one-third percentage of tax revenue would cover the average Washington county’s indigent defense cost, but the original idea for it came from discussions with Grays Harbor County commissioners. Commissioner Vickie Raines said they receive a state grant each year of around $78,000 for indigent defense, but that it only covered a small amount of this year’s cost, due partially to an increase in murder cases.

“You might have zero murder cases, or five in 18 months, like we had,” said Raines. “What’s frustrating is the state should be paying for these. We shouldn’t have to break the county in order to provide this service that the state requires us to provide.”

Since the counties are required to provide public defenders, Raines said the biggest issue from these costs are cutbacks in other areas and it resulted in one person being laid off.

Raines said that in cases less severe than murder, like assault or burglary, public defenders typically have a flat amount they can charge, but that murder cases often bring additional costs such as examining witnesses and evidence with outside professionals. Raines was supportive of Walsh’s bill, saying that the amount of marijuana tax revenue they receive from the state is less than 1 percent of what the state gets.

Walsh said some state officials will likely oppose his bill and say that the state needs the marijuana revenue for other necessary costs or potentially for new taxes that could be used to better fund counties’ indigent defense costs. He added that he’s willing to negotiate on the 33.3 percent amount.

“If someone’s got a better idea, I’m open to it,” he said. “I’m willing to negotiate, if 25 or 20 (perccent) will work better. It’s all a negotiation.”

The bill is scheduled to be seen for the first time when legislators return to session in January. If passed, it would go into effect in July 2019.