State attorneys need far more pay if they are to be expected to defend the state competently, according to Utah's new attorney general.
Paul Van Dam, who narrowly ousted two-term Republican incumbent David Wilkinson in November's election, asked lawmakers Monday for $750,000 to give his attorneys 9.4 percent raises, the first test for one of his major campaign promises.Van Dam also asked for more space in which to work, saying many attorneys are cramped into tiny offices at the State Capitol or stuck in hallways to conserve space.
"The basic question is what kind of a law firm does the state want?" he asked members of the Executive Offices, Court and Corrections Appropriation Subcommittee.
Van Dam said beginning attorneys earn an average of $27,042 yearly when hired by the state. Attorneys hired by Salt Lake County earn an average beginning salary of $31,167, and attorneys hired by private companies earn much more.
Throughout last year's election campaign, Wilkinson was criticized about large numbers of attorneys leaving his office. He said the Legislature refused to grant money for higher salaries.
Van Dam promised to have a better rapport with lawmakers and to be better able to persuade them to grant more money.
It is too early to tell whether he will make good on that promise. So far, Gov. Norm Bangerter has recommended adding a surcharge to criminal fines to give the attorney general $588,500 for raises. The legislative fiscal analyst included no raises in his budget recommendations. Members of the committee made no decisions Monday, although they did ask that state facilities officials appear soon to discuss ways of finding more space for state attorneys.
"There is no financial incentive for the brightest young lawyers to stay in the attorney general's office," Van Dam said. The state is often unprepared to handle cases because attorneys leave to find higher-paying jobs.
"It takes a lot of time to train people to become experts in any particular field," he said. "When it comes to securities fraud and antitrust cases, we are the proverbial paper tiger."
Van Dam asked that the money for raises be taken from the state's general fund, not from the surcharge the governor has proposed.
"I'm not very happy that the governor has appended our increase to a bill that may not pass," he said. "Even if it does pass, all we've got are projections of what it might produce. It builds an instability that I really question."
The surcharge, if passed, also would provide about $1 million for jury and witness fees and $500,000 to reimburse counties for housing state prisoners in county jails.