IF RON SIMS' proposed budget passes as planned, the chances of a poor person getting a fair trial in King County will fall through the floor. Sims wants to cut the salaries of public defenders--while giving the King County Prosecutor's Office a raise.

The U.S. Constitution, if you recall, says that everyone charged with a crime is entitled to a defense attorney, whether they can afford one or not. Sims' budget, however, may make that a difficult proposition to uphold.

On the surface, it looks as if King County Executive Sims is a magnanimous leader. Comparing last year's proposed budget with this year's, the attorney salaries at the county's four public-defender agencies appear to get a $3 million--21 percent--salary increase.

But critics say this is number-shuffling. They charge that given the county's new math, public defenders are actually going to see their wages go down--some individual attorneys may lose thousands of dollars a year. The total loss in salaries to public defenders could be as high as $774,000, says David Chapman, managing director of the Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA), a public-defender agency. ACA will take a six percent salary hit.

Why the discrepancy between Sims' numbers and the critics'? Part of the problem is that King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng is ambitiously filing more criminal drug charges in Superior Court than ever before. In response, public-defender agencies have had to hire more attorneys.

Chapman is crying foul over Sims' plan. He predicts that his most experienced public defenders are likely to consider leaving public service. "I have to cut salaries [because] I can't cut my rent. I can't cut the phone service. I can't cut the electricity," he says. "We're in a real budget crunch now." A few attorneys are half-seriously thinking about going to work for Prosecutor Maleng's office, where salaries are going up by four percent next year.

What's worse, even progressive politicians who normally defend the public defenders don't know how to solve the problem. "I don't know where the money can come from," Gossett says. "I'm just projecting, but I don't think it's very likely we'll be able to add $700,000 to the public-defense budget, and that's unfortunate."