State budget delays funding Lathan Word compensation, new Superior Court judge

Funding to come through in January 2014

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 3, 2013 

Just because the legislation passes doesn’t mean the money is there.

That’s what Columbus is learning now about two key pieces of local legislation that passed the Georgia General Assembly in its final hours a week ago.

The measure that attracted the most notice was a resolution to pay Lathan Word $400,000 for the 11 years he spent in prison after being wrongly convicted of a Columbus armed robbery in the year 2000.

Dubbed House Resolution 73 and sponsored by area lawmakers Rep. Carolyn Hugley, Rep. Calvin Smyre and Rep. Debbie Buckner, it first passed the House on March 7, but did not pass the Senate until March 28, the General Assembly’s last day, when senators amended it to say Word’s annuities would be discontinued were he convicted of a felony.

The House passed the Senate’s amended version later that evening, and Word was elated to hear his compensation was on its way.

But it is not, with any immediacy, because the money is not yet available. It is not in the state budget, and will not be added until an amended or supplementary budget takes effect in January, said state Rep. Richard Smith.

“That money was not put in the budget for one reason, primarily,” Smith said: “In order for that to have been funded, the resolution had to pass both houses saying that we would pay him, and it was running so late into the session … that the money was not added.”

But it will be, he said: “But the plans call, since it did pass both houses, that it will be put in the amended budget in January. He’ll be given kind of like an annuity.”

Smith said the money will be appropriated automatically. Legislators will not have to vote on Word’s compensation again, he said.

Contacted by telephone at his home in Troy, Ala., Word said he had been informed of the delay. “They did tell me about that,” he said.

He was not disappointed, he said: “I’m grateful just to know it’s going through. It’s no problem with me.”

Word was convicted of armed robbery Sept. 7, 2000. He was released June 20, 2011, after a key prosecution witness recanted testimony identifying Word as the gunman who robbed Jennie & Joe’s Curb Market on Clover Lane, taking $300.

Word was 18 when police arrested him Sept. 14, 1999. He was 29 when freed.

It took him 13 months just to clear his record, Word said last week. No one would hire him because of the armed robbery conviction, so only months ago was he able to find a job in a chicken processing plant.

Columbus will encounter a similar budget delay in adding a seventh Superior Court judge to its six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit: The legislation says the position is to be established July 1, but the budget has no funding for it until Jan. 1, said state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus.

The senator said he expects the governor will declare the position open July 1 and start accepting applications. Applicants will come before a committee that makes recommendations to the governor, who decides whom to appoint.

That six months’ delay creates another hitch: The legislation says the judge taking that seat will be up for election in 2014. It’s unlikely a newly appointed judge will have to stand for election immediately, McKoon said. More likely the seat won’t be on the ballot until 2016.

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