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The Georgia Senate Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would forgive up to $600 per month in law school loans for most lawyers working in the public sector. The bill has bipartisan support, but may not be funded this year. SB 465 was approved by the Higher Education Committee on Tuesday, and quickly moved to the floor for a vote. The governor’s bill would forgive loans for assistant district attorneys, assistant solicitors general, assistant solicitors, civil legal aid attorneys, public defenders, and attorneys who work for the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Counsel and the State Law Department. Attorneys would be eligible after six months of employment and would have to agree to work an additional month for each loan payment received. Thus, an attorney who received 18 months of loan payments would have to serve for 36 months, plus the initial six months needed to gain eligibility. The state would require repayment from those who quit or are fired before fulfilling the requirements. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Charles B. Tanksley, R-Marietta, a former law partner of Gov. Roy E. Barnes’ and one of his Senate floor leaders, doubts the bill will receive funding this year. He told the Senate Higher Education Committee on Tuesday that the “Public Interest Lawyer Fund” still could be launched this year with donations from private foundations and law firms. The program would cost the state $2.9 million per year, according to the district attorney who headed the governor’s task force on loan forgiveness. Kenneth Bryant Hodges III, Dougherty County DA, estimates the cost at $5,900 per eligible attorney. Although Hodges says he hopes the program can begin this summer with money from elsewhere, he says government funding is more likely in 2003 or 2004. Sarah J. Smith, government relations director for the Georgia Indigent Defense Council, says that in the 21 public defender offices in Georgia, 108 lawyers owe more than $6 million in law school loans, averaging $56,079 per lawyer. The average public defender in rural areas earns about $30,000 per year, while those in urban areas usually earn more. The bill left out some public service attorneys, such as clerks and judicial branch attorneys. Sandra Martha Torres, staff attorney for the Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia, laments that her job is not included in the program. Torres had graduated from Emory’s law school owing $115,000 in loans when she started government work at a $40,000 salary three years ago. She said her monthly loan payments will increase from $800 to $900 a month in April, taking about 20 years for her to pay off. To make ends meet, she works a second job at a YMCA nights and weekends. “It forces the issue for people like me who are committed [to public sector law]. It makes you ask yourself, ‘Can I afford to do what I love?’ ” Torres says. “ I grow to accept it, but the Senate bill that could have helped you ends up discouraging you.” Judge Kevin A. Wangerin of the Towaliga Superior Court told the committee he wanted clerks included in the loan forgiveness because competent clerks are needed to prevent backlogs. Hodges says he doesn’t object to adding other public sector lawyers, as long as it doesn’t dilute the focus of the bill.

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