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State funding for firm giving free legal advice to vulnerable clients is zeroed out in Dunleavy veto

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has vetoed all the state money that for 50 years helped fund a private, nonprofit law firm serving low-income clients ranging from elders filing fraud claims to women seeking protection from abusive partners.

Dunleavy vetoed just over $750,000 from Alaska Legal Services Corp. — the entire state budget for the only entity providing free help to poor Alaskans involved in civil legal matters: consumer law, family law, housing problems, public benefits, health care issues, Alaska Native law, and veteran and elderly issues.

It was among $444 million cut from the state’s operating budget in vetoes announced last week. The Constitution calls for 45 votes before the 60-member Legislature can override a governor’s vetoes, which has been called an unlikely prospect.

Founded in 1967, Legal Services has received some state funding every year from every administration, according to executive director Nikole Nelson.

The firm serves only about 8,000 of the 108,000 people who qualify for legal aid from about a dozen offices across the state, Nelson said. If the vetoes stand, Legal Services may have to turn away another 1,400 potential clients per year and may have to shutter an office.

“This reduction is really going to hit hard,” she said. “We were already underfunded.”

About a third of the Legal Services clients are victims of domestic violence, most of them women. There are children present in about three-quarters of the homes involved.

A Legal Services lawyer helped Robin Shull leave an abusive relationship.

Her ex-husband left her with a facial fracture during a visit to a relative’s home in San Diego in 2017, Shull said. She took their daughter, 14 now, and left for her sister’s in Arizona before returning home to Sitka to file for divorce. Shull at the time didn’t have a job or enough income to keep her home, much less afford an attorney. She found Legal Services through Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

She got custody of the girl in a divorce that took nearly a year, according to a state courts database.

“That was my main goal,” she said. “It was very stressful. I was very afraid of him at the time. I’m so grateful to have had Alaska Legal Services. I could not have done this on my own. At all.”

Shull just moved with her daughter to California. She’s interviewing for a municipal recreation job.

“I would really hate to see the next person with my plight be turned away because of the funding cuts,” she said.

The governor cut $450,000 for the firm plus $309,000 raised after the Legislature last year approved giving it a share of 10% of court system filing fees. The corporation grants are “not a core function" of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, the administration explained in a document detailing vetoes.

The state’s funding amounts to a little over an eighth of the corporation’s $5 million budget, which also includes federal and local sources as well as private donations.

But legal advocates note the cut comes as Alaska Legal Services, with offices from Utqiagvik to Sitka, struggles to meet existing needs amid what U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a public-safety emergency for rural Alaska due to high rates of sexual assault and family violence.

The governor also vetoed about $400,000 in funding for the Public Defender Agency and cut the travel budget for the Public Defender Agency and the Office of Public Advocacy in half, for a total estimated amount of more than $270,000.

The agencies provide help for Alaskans who qualify for public lawyers in criminal cases. The Office of Public Advocacy also handles elder abuse and child protective cases.

The acting public defender referred a reporter to the commissioner of the Department of Administration. The commissioner’s office did not provide a statement.

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