By now, you probably have heard the great news that Senate Bill 844 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Rep. Dan Gattis (R-Georgetown) passed the Texas Legislature and was signed into law by the governor May 5. The funding is included in the state budget for the 2008-2009 biennium, so this supplement will be available to all assistant prosecutors, including assistant county attorneys, beginning September 1, 2007.
Since 1979, the State of Texas has pursued a strategy to increase the professionalism of its prosecutors by encouraging the best lawyers to devote their careers to representing the State in both criminal and civil matters. The first piece of legislation along this line was the Professional Prosecutor Act, (Chapter 46 of the Government Code), which encourages elected district attorneys to forgo a private practice and focus on the work of the people by tying their salary to that of district judges. This policy has been very successful: For instance, out of the 155 elected felony prosecutors in Texas, only 11 still have the option to maintain a private practice, and that number was reduced to seven during this recent session. The second piece of the puzzle was the County Attorney Supplement, which was enacted in 1999 to provide State support for the 174 county attorneys who do work on the State’s behalf. This supplement, again using a formula based on a district judge’s salary, has provided a significant boost to elected county attorneys.
The third key piece was the brainchild of Vilma Luna, a former Harris County assistant district attorney and State Representative from Corpus Christi, who saw a need to help assistant prosecutors remain in the profession. The result was the Assistant Prosecutor Longevity Pay Act in 2001. This program is found at Chapter 41, Government Code, Subchapter D.
Senate Bill 844 corrected a shortcoming of the original longevity pay legislation, which limited coverage to assistant prosecutors in offices with felony jurisdiction. Since the inception of the program, the $15 fee on surety bonds that funds longevity pay has produced sufficient excess to cover all assistant prosecutors, so the legislature agreed to extend the program to include all assistants, effective this year.
So what does this new legislation mean? Take the time to read Chapter 41, Subchapter D, of the Government Code, and SB 844 (you can find it on the Capitol website at www.capitol .state.tx.us). Assistant county prosecutors get credit for all time in which they have served as full-time Texas prosecutors. Beginning in the fifth year of service, assistants will receive $20 per month per year of service (or $80 a month) from the State. That’s $960 a year at the start, which increases annually and caps at $5,000 a year in the 21st year of service. In addition, there is a bonus in this bill if you are currently an assistant felony prosecutor who has prior service credit as an assistant county attorney. Because SB 844 amends the definition of “assistant prosecutor,” that time as an assistant county attorney now counts when you calculate your longevity, so you may get a boost, too.
How will this boost happen? In the middle of August, the judiciary section of the comptroller’s office will send out a form to every county attorney’s office in the state. This form will allow you to calculate your service credits and enroll in the program with the comptroller. Longevity pay will be delivered to your county in quarterly increments beginning in September 2007, and your county will pass it along to you in a manner of their choosing.
I want to take this moment to say thanks again to Scott Brumley, county attorney in Potter County, and Jim Kuboviak, county attorney in Brazos County, for developing this legislation and spending the time in Austin to push it through the system.
And now we are left with one more piece of this puzzle on which we all need to work: student loan forgiveness and repayment legislation working its way through the U.S. Congress this spring. For more information about that program, check out Rob Kepple’s Executive Director’s Report on page 4.