By Megan E. Davis
Bills prefiled for next year’s legislative session seek to ease the burden of student loan debt for some of Florida’s government lawyers.
SB 146, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, proposes a loan assistance program for assistant state attorneys, assistant public defenders, assistant attorneys general, and assistant statewide prosecutors.
A compainion bill, HB 77, filed in the House by Rep. James Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, would also extend loan repayments to assistant regional counsels.
Lawyers with three to six years of continuous service would be eligible for $3,000 annually in loan assistance, while attorneys with more than six and no more than 12 years of service would be eligible for $5,000 annually.
“People hear ‘lawyer’ and they assume big salary, but that is just not the case with our state’s prosecutors, public defenders, and public interest attorneys,” said Leland Taylor, chair of The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division’s Legislative Affairs Committee, which helped lobby for the bill to be filed. “This is a public safety and public trust issue. Prosecutors uphold and pursue the public’s safety and public defenders uphold the Constitution by defending the indigent public. It’s appropriate to give a helping hand to those who work long hours for low pay to help the public and ensure the public’s trust. Otherwise, we risk endangering the very institutions that protect the public.”
YLD President Melanie Griffin said the bill could also benefit the state.
“As of now, there’s incredible turnover on the part of [these attorneys] when their initial contracts with the state run out,” Griffin said. “I believe approximately one in five end up leaving. There can be as much as 20 percent turnover in any one office. There’s a belief that there would be a direct correlation between offering loan assistance and decreasing the amount of turnover.”
The proposed legislation would allow attorneys to receive up to $44,000 in loan repayment assistance in total.
For lawyers with multiple loans, payment would be made on the loan with the highest interest rate. For a loan to be eligible, it must not be in default and must have been issued pursuant to the Higher Education Act of 1965 for law school education.
The Florida Bar has a legislative position supporting efforts to create “reasonable financial student loan assistance for all government lawyers and legal aid attorneys who have served in that capacity for more than three years.”