Monthly Archives: March 2015

Out and About: BBA Budget Excursions

Since Governor Charlie Baker released his state budget proposal at the beginning of this month, funding the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation line item below its original FY15 amount, we’ve increased our focus on Legislative meetings, trying to meet with as many legislators as possible before the House and Senate file their own versions of the budget.  , Thus far, we have held meetings with House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Ways and Means Chair Brian Dempsey, House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, Senate Judiciary Chair William Brownsberger, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, and others.  And by the time the two houses begin to debate the budget, we plan to have met with legislators or staffers from the following offices:

  • Representative Ronald Mariano (House Majority Leader)
  • Representative Byron Rushing (House Assistant Majority Leader)
  • Representative Garrett Bradley (House Second Assistant Majority Leader)
  • Representative Michael Moran (House Division Chair)
  • Representative John Fernandes (House Judiciary Chair)
  • Representative Aaron Michlewitz (House Financial Services Chair)
  • Senator Sal DiDomenico (Vice-Chair, Senate Ways and Means)
  • Senator Pat Jehlen (Assistant Vice Chair, Senate Committee on Ways and Means)
  • Senator Harriette Chandler (Senate Majority Leader)
  • Senator Cindy Creem (Senate Assistant Majority Leader)
  • Senator Anthony Petruccelli (Senate Majority Whip)
  • Senator Kenneth Donnelly (Senate Assistant Majority Whip)

As of this post, we have met with ten of the above twelve listed legislators, and their reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.  Most are well versed in the issues that have put a major strain on legal services providers – the drop in IOLTA funds and the increase in poor population – and have been long-time supporters of legal-aid funding.  Many knew firsthand of constituents whom they referred to legal services providers.  While all reminded us that this year’s budget situation is unusually bleak due to the massive deficit, we have heard repeatedly that our message on the investment value of legal-aid funding is getting through, and that, once again, many members are flagging the line-item for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) as one of their top budget priorities.

The next step in the budget process comes from the House Ways and Means Committee, which is expected to release its budget on April 15.  The Senate’s budget will likely come out in May.  We still hope to see a major increase for civil legal aid funding, and will keep you posted on the process.

In the meantime, the Ways and Means Committees of each house have been holding joint hearings across the state, each on a different part of the budget.  Wednesday’s hearing in Worcester focused on the judiciary budget, taking testimony from the likes of Chief Justice of the SJC Ralph Gants, most of the state’s district attorneys, Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and MLAC Executive Director Lonnie Powers.

Chief Justice Gants told Committee members that the Governor’s budget plan would effectively cut $40M from the $642M that the courts would need simply to maintain existing levels of service.  The impact would be devastating to the delivery of justice, he warned, which “must be among the highest priorities of government.”  Layoffs of hundreds of court employees would be required, and the overall effect would be to undermine recent reforms and efficiencies that have been made possible by a stabilization in court budget levels after sustaining disproportionate cuts in the wake of the Great Recession.

Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence noted that, by law, courthouses cannot be closed without legislative approval, yet without proper funding, there may not be enough staff to keep all of them operating at sufficient levels.  Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Trial Court, called the courts “ground zero” for society’s problems, saying, “We see the sea of humanity.”  The epidemic of opioid addiction has hit the courts particularly hard, with some overdosing on court property.  The courts, she said, are also hard at work implementing new laws on domestic violence and gun possession, and they will need money to conduct on-line education for staff.

Their testimony also covered two key BBA priorities that came up short in the Governor’s budget: expansion of the Housing Court to offer statewide jurisdiction, and expansion of the successful specialty courts for mental health, substance abuse, veterans, and the homeless.

Although DA’s and CPCS generally line up on opposite sides of the courthouse, they were in complete agreement on one point at the hearing: They are unable to attract and retain new attorneys at current funding levels.  Both pointed to the report last December from a commission established by former Governor Deval Patrick, which emphasized the embarrassingly low starting salaries for ADA’s and public defenders – about $40,000 for each – and recommended instead a minimum of about $56,000 for each, to match the lowest-paid attorneys in the executive branch.

Lonnie Powers spoke eloquently of the value of funding for legal aid, citing the report of the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, which demonstrated through independent economic analysis that the state actually receives a positive return on that investment, in the form of both reduced “back-end” costs on things like health care for domestic-violence victims and shelter for the homeless, and the economic growth that’s generated when Massachusetts residents are able to receive the full federal benefits to which they’re entitled.

Powers mentioned the report’s additional findings that 64% of qualified applicants for legal aid must be turned away by providers for lack of resources, and that judges reported a flood of pro se litigants clogging up their courts.  He said MLAC closed 34,000 cases last year and trained private attorneys who put in an additional 46,000 pro bono hours.

Budget season is heating up, and we will continue to update you on our advocacy efforts.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

An Inside Look: Court Management, Court Comments, and the Governor’s Legal Counsel at This Month’s BBA Council

At the BBA, we are always eager to hear a variety of perspectives on the justice system, and our Council meetings often provide an opportunity to do that.  This week’s Council meeting was especially fruitful, as Council heard from two very important individuals working to improve the justice system, Glenn Mangurian and Lon Povich, in addition to considering comments from two of our sections.

Our Council regularly considers policy-related items, and this week’s agenda included informal comments from our Bankruptcy and Real Estate Law Sections on a proposed Trial Court standing order for the BMC and District Court that would require plaintiffs to verify defendants’ addresses for claims incurred in trade or commerce or pursuing assigned debt.  Council discussed and approved comments that were sent to the Trial Court for its consideration.  We appreciate being asked to weigh in and hope that the Court finds these thoughtful comments helpful.

The conversation then turned to our justice system, with a presentation from Glenn Mangurian, Chair of the Court Management Advisory Board (CMAB).  The CMAB was established by the Legislature in 2003 after issuance of the report of the Monan Commission, which had been appointed the previous year to provide an independent perspective on the state of management in the judiciary and to make recommendations for its improvement.  The CMAB has a similar but enduring role.

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The CMAB is comprised of two ex-officio members and 10 members who are invited to participate by the SJC.  They all serve 3-year terms and can be reappointed to one additional term.  The Board, currently in its third iteration, elects its own chair.  Mangurian is only non-lawyer member and the first non-lawyer chair.  As he explains it, the CMAB is a working board.  It meets with all the chief justices of the various Trial Court departments and monthly with SJC Justice Margot Botsford, and with Trial Court leaders, Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence.  Mangurian also sits down with SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants on a quarterly basis.

The CMAB issued a report in 2014, its most comprehensive and the first since 2010, describing the state of management of the courts.  In briefest terms, the report explains that the court has new leadership and is quickly moving in the right direction.  It also makes four recommendations for improvement:  First, the report espouses increased use of data and “organizational learning,” whereby the courts constantly reconsider each aspect of justice administration by studying other courts, other states, and other cultures.  The data recommendation calls for an evidence-based approach to problem-solving.  The courts have done a good job, particularly in recent years, of collecting data   as Mangurian explained, and it is now time to use those data to tweak court operations and expectations.

Second, the report discusses leadership, with a focus on encouraging the Trial Court to cultivate future generations of leaders.  Under this theory of talent development, the courts should give employees the opportunity to build careers, with room for advancement to reward individuals demonstrating ambition and potential.

The report next addresses the court “user experience,” which is the sum of every interaction – from the phone to the website, parking lot, and courthouse interiors.  It places an emphasis on hearing the voices of court users — a diverse group including lawyers, litigants, jurors, witnesses, victims, family members, and more, each with different needs and experiences — and trying to meet those needs as well as possible.

The final recommendation calls on the SJC to maintain a close relationship with the Trial Court, operating like a board of directors and working to build the public’s trust in the judicial system.  Mangurian reported that the SJC is already embracing this directive and now meets regularly with leaders of the Trial Court to discuss both immediate and long-term issues.

After Mangurian left, the Council welcomed back Governor Charlie Baker’s recently-appointed Chief Legal Counsel, and former BBA Council member, Lon Povich.  Having served roughly 65 days, Povich explained the whirlwind he’s experienced in his new position, through the worst winter in Boston’s history and a gaping budget deficit.  He broke down the Governor’s budget proposal for Council members, noting level-funding for the courts and civil legal aid (as well as for most areas), and explained the many difficulties the new administration faced in its preparation, including a short timeframe and major public transportation challenges, not to mention a mandate from the Governor not to raise taxes or fees._MG_1102

He also spoke about the judicial nominating process.  The Governor issued a new executive order (#558) at the end of January that reconstitutes the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC).  The JNC is a 21- member statewide, non-partisan, non-political, non-compensated body that screens applications for judicial and clerk-magistrate positions.  Povich, who served for seven years on the JNC himself, spoke with great respect for their process and the amount of work JNC members do.

The Executive Order makes some minor tweaks to that process – for example, changing the language used to rate candidates (from “highly qualified,” “qualified,” or “less qualified” to “well qualified,” “qualified,” or “not qualified”, in keeping with the language used by the Joint Bar Committee) and increasing the threshold voting percentages for approval, with 50% (up from 40%) now required to advance to the “due diligence” stage, and 2/3 (up from 60%) now required for recommendation to the Governor.  Those increases were a nod to the amount of work conducted by the JNC in each step of their reviews, and will generally require an additional one or two votes.  He also spoke of the importance of recruiting strong judicial candidates and pledged that the Baker Administration will continue the pattern of exceptionally qualified and diverse nominees.

The BBA was pleased to hear from these accomplished individuals providing their different perspectives.  In one meeting, the BBA Council was able to provide the courts some insight from practitioners on a proposed standing order, learn about court management, and receive a report from the Governor’s office on court funding and the judicial nomination process.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Governor Baker Submits His First Budget

Governor Charlie Baker released his first annual state budget proposal on March 4 and, generally speaking, most spending was held to no more – and in some cases less – than last year’s funding levels.  This is true for civil legal aid and most of the rest of the judiciary budget – key BBA priorities.  Neither does it provide for increases in the minimum salaries for assistant district attorneys and public defenders.

Although disappointing to be sure, these outcomes were not especially surprising, given that the Governor had identified a budget gap he estimated at $1.8 billion, and that he had stated he would nevertheless hold to his pledge not to increase any taxes or fees.  Required by state law to balance the budget, he chose to limit spending as the primary means to do so.  In total, the budget adds up to $38.1B, a 3.0% increase over the current fiscal year 2015 (FY15).

The Governor’s plan has been formally submitted to the Legislature, which will spend the next three or four months developing its own budget to send back to the Governor.

The BBA will of course continue to advocate for appropriate funding for the courts, and for a $10 million increase in funding for civil legal aid, as recommended by our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts in their recent report Investing in Justice.

(As you’ll recall from previous Issue Spot entries, that report used independent economic analyses to demonstrate that money invested by the state in civil legal aid actually produces a positive return on investment in the form of savings on back-end costs for things like health care for domestic-violence victims and shelter for the homeless, as well as the economic growth fueled when residents obtain their rightful federal benefits.)

Scroll down to learn how you can help with that effort!  But first, a brief primer on the budget process is in order:

The state’s fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30, so the budget currently being debated is for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16), which begins July 1, 2015.  The process begins in December or January with an agreement – known as the consensus revenue estimate — among the Governor, the Senate, and the House on how much money the state expects to collect during the coming fiscal year.  This year, they concluded revenue would expand to 4.8% higher than projections for the current fiscal year.

The Governor, with the help of his Executive of Office of Administration and Finance (ANF), then decides how much of that estimated revenue to spend on each of the hundreds of line-items that the budget is broken down into.  The budget may also incorporate proposals to increase revenue available to the state, either from one-time sources (such as this year’s plan to divert $300 million in capital-gains taxes into the General Fund rather than the “rainy-day” fund) or from on-going sources (such as a permanent hike in a tax or fee).

Next, the budget is delivered to the Legislature in the form of a bill, known as H. 1 (or “House 1”) in odd-numbered years and H. 2 in even-numbered years.  It is ordinarily due in late January, but when a new Governor takes office, as happened this year, there’s a grace period until early March.

Whether or not there is a new Governor, the timeline for the Legislature remains basically the same: The Ways and Means Committees of each house will soon hold a series of joint hearings across the state, each focused on a different area of the budget.  (The BBA is primarily interested in the hearing on the judiciary, which has yet to be scheduled.)

After hearing from House members about their individual budget priorities, the House Ways and Means Committee releases a budget, expected on April 15 this year.  Historically, it makes significant changes to the Governor’s bill, and this year should be no different.  House members then have about two days to file proposed amendments, which are debated over two or three days two weeks later, before a final vote is held.  Next, the Senate follows a similar process, with a final vote on their budget typically taking place in late May.

Because the two houses’ budgets inevitably differ, a joint conference committee then spends several weeks reconciling the differences.  Their goal is to deliver a budget to the Governor before the July 1 start of the fiscal year.  The Governor has ten days to act on the budget, and he wields “line-item veto” power (denied to the President, but available to Governors in many states), meaning he can approve the budget as a whole while vetoing or reducing specific line-items, but the Legislature can then override these changes with a two-thirds vote in each house.

But wait — the process is not quite over, because there are frequently supplemental (“supp”) budgets enacted during the fiscal year, as new costs arise (such as, well, extraordinary expenses for snow and ice removal) and as revenue numbers come in either higher or lower than anticipated.  And when a large hole opens up in the budget, a Governor can make unilateral “9C” cuts to the executive branch’s budget and urge the Legislature to do the same in the remainder of the budget, as Governor Baker did recently, and as Governor Deval Patrick did last fall.

(If this kind of “inside baseball” interests you – that is, if your eyes didn’t glaze over while reading the last several paragraphs – you should definitely attend our “Budget 101” event next Thursday, March 19, aimed at demystifying the budget process.  The program starts at 5:30 PM and features top staffers from ANF, the Senate President’s Office, and the House Ways and Means Committee.  A networking reception will follow.)

As you can see, we are still at the early stages of this process for FY16.  Nevertheless, the BBA has been working for months to advocate for our priorities of court funding and civil legal aid.  We have had meetings with leadership of all three branches of government and with more than a dozen legislators and their staffs, and we will continue to do so.

You can help in this effort by contacting your Senator and Representative, to let them know you value civil legal aid, that it actually saves the state money, and that you want them to make it a priority in their discussions with Ways and Means.  You can find talking points here, a fact sheet on our Task Force report here, and contact information for your own legislators here.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

The Gambling Fix: How Our Casino Helps the State

A couple of weeks ago, if you were anywhere near the BBA, you may have heard voices chanting outside the State House.  Their shouts echoed through 16 Beacon – around 800 young people marching from the Old South Church to the State House, demanding a change after the Governor cut funding for 160 youth jobs as part of his budget fix to close a $768 million budget gap.  This measure, coupled with the increase in minimum wage, could result in 1,000 fewer jobs for youths this year.

The funding at issue comes from an Executive Branch program administered by the Commonwealth Corporation, YouthWorks, also known as “Summer Jobs Program for At Risk Youths” (line item 7002-0012), which received a $10.2 million appropriation for the FY15 budget.  The Commonwealth Corporation is a quasi-public state agency within the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.  Because it is part of the Executive Branch, the Governor has so-called 9C authority to cut its funding in order to balance the state’s budget.  In this case, Governor Charlie Baker’s cut will reduce YouthWorks funding by $370,000 over the course of the year.

YouthWorks provides job opportunities and training for individuals ages 14-21 and living at 130% of the federal poverty level in targeted high-risk cities of Massachusetts.  The program subsidizes jobs with local public, private, and non-profit companies and mandates a minimum of 15 hours of job readiness training for its participants.

With this news, the Boston Bar Association Summer Jobs Program carries increased significance.  The BBA works in concert with its charity, the Boston Bar Foundation, to provide paid summer internships to Boston public high school students in law firms, businesses, non-profits, the courts and government agencies.  In addition, students in the program attend an orientation as well as weekly seminars on law-related and professional development topics.  Last year, the program provided 64 internships to Boston teens, including 14 positions in legal service and government agencies funded by the Boston Bar Foundation.  Meet some of the BBF-funded students and learn about their experiences in the program here.

DSC_0119-002Coincidentally, our annual fundraising event for the Summer Jobs Program is only days away.  On March 12, the BBA will be transformed into a two-story casino for the annual Casino Night for Summer Jobs event. Your ticket to Casino Night gets you access to one of our most fun events with live entertainment, a silent auction, hors d’oeuvres and a beer and wine bar, and of course casino games.  (Check out pictures from past years).  Best of all, the proceeds give Boston area students great opportunities for paid meaningful summer employment that they would not otherwise have.

Another casualty of the budget deficit fix was civil legal aid funding – money that helps provide lawyers to individuals living at 125% of the poverty level secure or maintain basic life necessities such as avoiding foreclosure and eviction or gaining protection from a batterer.  The FY15 appropriation for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) was cut by 1.79%, or roughly $268,500 by a bill proposed by the Governor and approved almost unanimously by the legislature.  Because MLAC is part of the judicial branch, budget (line item 0321-1600), the Governor cannot cut it directly through his 9C authority.  However, the Governor can propose cuts in bill form to the legislature, which they can pass, as happened here.

The judiciary as a whole suffered a 1.79% mid-year cut, which of course is of great concern to us as well.  Governor Baker’s budget proposal for next year, FY16, was released just yesterday, and it too reflects strained circumstances, arriving as it does in the context of a significant budget gap.  (We will have more to say on that next week.)

As a result of the MLAC cuts, fewer people can access legal aid attorneys now than ever before.  According to our recent study, Investing in Justice, 64% of eligible individuals are turned away from legal aid due to lack of resources.  Not only does this mean that 54,000 people are hindered in accessing justice each year, but it also has a massive impact on the courts.  According to our survey, over 90% of judges felt that the increased number of pro se litigants bogged down court procedures and burdened court staff.

Like the summer jobs cuts, this problem has a solution.  We are asking the Legislature to increase legal aid funding by $30 million over three years, bringing the total MLAC appropriation request this year to $25 million.  We hope you will join us in this ask.  According to the work of independent economic analysts, civil legal aid is a smart investment.  For every $1 spent, the state actually gets a positive return on investment, either directly from back end savings on social services expenses such as law enforcement, shelter, and medical costs, or through economic growth.

The budget deficit has created major challenges for many areas of the budget, but few issues were hit harder than youth employment and civil legal aid.  So our ask this week is two-fold – enjoy a great evening out at Casino Night to support youth summer jobs and contact your legislator to voice your support for civil legal aid funding.  Making a difference is that simple!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association