A proposal by Gov. Paul LePage to create a state public defenders office to represent criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer will be aired in a public hearing Thursday at the State House.

The bill, sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators on LePage’s behalf, would replace the current system, which uses state money to hire private lawyers for indigent defense, with a hybrid system in which approved private attorneys would be under contract with the state. Currently, lawyers hired as public defenders aren’t under contract.

But the bill is opposed by many attorneys who currently represent indigent defendants in Maine.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee will hold the public hearing starting at 1 p.m. Many people are expected to testify, so individuals will be limited to several minutes each, said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the bill’s lead sponsor. The committee will then schedule a work session to debate the bill before voting on whether to recommend sending it to the full Legislature.

The committee held over the bill from last year to allow legislative staff more time to refine it and hear from stakeholders, Burns said.

“There are concerns that individual services are going to get slimmed down with this bill and people won’t get their true (legal) representation. I think there is a lot of concern there,” Burns said. “I’m not an attorney, so I come at it from a lay person’s point of view. We want to see if we can improve on the system we have going. If we can’t, the bill isn’t going anywhere.”

Maine is now the only state without some form of a public defender’s office to oversee the representation of indigent criminal defendants.

The bill, L.D. 1433, would create a three-person Office of the Public Defender, including a chief appointed by the governor. The new office would be responsible for entering into contracts with private attorneys to represent indigent defendants, for developing qualifications for them and for collecting some money from the indigent defendants.

The bill also would modify the role of the independent Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, established by the Legislature in 2010. The commission now oversees the hiring of private attorneys for indigent defense. Under the bill, the commission would oversee the Office of the Public Defender.

Until 2010, the Judicial Branch oversaw the indigent defense system, assigning cases to private attorneys and authorizing their payments – lawyers representing indigent defendants are paid $60 an hour.

John Pelletier, executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, said the commission has voted to oppose LePage’s bill.

Pelletier said it had solicited opinions prior to Tuesday’s vote from private attorneys who now accept indigent defense work for the state.

“The comments that we received, there were a few that saw positives in (the bill). There were a few that were neutral, who saw the pros and the cons. The large majority were opposed to the bill,” Pelletier said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a criminal defense attorney and co-sponsor of the bill, said even he doesn’t like some aspects of the proposal, particularly the contract portion, which would require attorneys to bid for indigent defense work.

“I think the bill has merit in bringing the spotlight on indigent services,” Dion said.

Dion said criminal defense attorneys in Maine currently learn from one another as they take court-appointed cases. Limiting case appointments to only those who have a contract with the state would prevent others from benefiting from that peer mentoring.

“It inadvertently has a negative effect on the quality of the defense bar,” Dion said. “I can’t support the contract piece because it will diminish the defense bar.”

In contrast, the New Hampshire Public Defender Office is a private, nonprofit corporation that is fully funded by the state but has more than 100 full-time defense attorneys that work for the corporation rather than the state.

Portland attorney Devens Hamlen worked for the New Hampshire Public Defender Office for more than eight years after graduating from the University of Maine School of Law. He returned to Maine two years ago to co-found H&H Law Center with attorney Merritt Heminway.

In New Hampshire, public defenders must undergo an intensive five-week training program before being allowed to take on a limited caseload. They must work under a more experienced, mentoring attorney for one year before handling a full caseload.

Hamlen said he was only required to take a one-day video course before being allowed to represent indigent defendants in Maine.

Hamlen said he feels the proposal before the Judiciary Committee will weaken the current system by potentially awarding indigent defense contracts to the lowest-bidding attorneys. He said the bill still wouldn’t create a real public defenders office.

“My initial thought is its a public defender in name only. It is unlike any other public defender system, and it doesn’t have a public defender’s office,” Hamlen said.

Attorney Robert Ruffner, director of the Maine Indigent Defense Center, said he sees pros and cons in LePage’s bill and hopes the Judiciary Committee votes to recommend an amended version.

“The commission was an excellent first step, going from not having a system as part of the Judicial Branch,” Ruffner said. “I don’t think anyone who really looks at our system and sees what it doesn’t do, but could do, would say that there is no more progress, that there is no second step.”

The state budget for indigent legal services has swelled from nearly $11 million in its first fully funded year in 2011 to nearly $14 million in 2014. Yet as each fiscal year nears its end, the commission routinely runs out of available cash to pay attorneys for their work.

“If you look at the amount of resources directed to indigent legal services, we can do better,” Ruffner said.