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