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Legislation would help repay prosecutors, defenders’ student loans

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Rep. Mike Gottlieb

Rep. Mike Gottlieb

Assistant state attorneys and public defenders with between four and nine years on the job could qualify for $3,000 to $5,000 in annual student loan assistance under bills introduced in the Florida House and Senate.

HB 147, filed by Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Sunrise, and SB 1472, by Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, would set up a program in the Department of Education that would provide $3,000 a year to repay loans for assistant public defenders and state attorneys in their fourth, fifth, and sixth years of service.

Those with seven, eight, and nine years would be eligible for $5,000 a year in assistance.

Those qualifying would have to earn less than $65,000 a year, be members in good standing of The Florida Bar, be free of any grievance history, not be in default on a student loan, be employed full time by a state attorney or public defender, and have a state or federal government-guaranteed student loan issued pursuant to the Higher Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. §1001, to fund a law school education.

Participants would have to provide certification yearly that they are still employed by a public defender or state attorney. The Legislature would annually appropriate funding for the program and if there were not enough money to fully fund the payments, then they would be proportionately reduced among all the participants.

Gottlieb said the bill is being vetted now to see how many assistant state attorneys and public defenders would qualify and what the price tag would be.

A practicing criminal defense attorney, Gottlieb credited former 17th Circuit State Attorney Michael Satz, who retired earlier this year, for promoting the idea.

“On his way out of office, this was one of his priorities,” Gottlieb said. “He said, ‘If you want to help us and make the office better, this is what you should do.’”

While the impacts are still to be evaluated, he said he’s hopeful it will get a hearing and find approval among lawmakers.

“I’m aware that Speaker [Chris] Sprowls, R-Clearwater, certainly wants to make the state attorneys’ office throughout the state better,” Gottlieb said. “I did have a meeting with leadership and I believe they like it.”

Nancy Daniels, acting executive director of the Florida Public Defenders Association, said public defenders support the bill, although they would like to see the assistance begin after two or three years of service instead of four.

“It’s always great to have legislators who want to file something to help us with the retention problem,” she said. “It’s a great step forward to reduce turnover and retain our people for more than two or three years.

“If we adjusted the bills a little bit to begin giving some of the relief sooner, it would help us.”

HB 147 has been referred to the Post-Secondary Education & Lifelong Learning Subcommittee, the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee, the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, and the Education & Employment Committee. It has not been scheduled for a hearing. SB 1472 has not yet been assigned to committees.

The Legislature’s 60-day session begins March 2.

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