Budget Process Nearly Complete

This week, the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee approved a final FY2016 budget and yesterday it was enacted in both the House and Senate.  Let’s take a look at where our items of interest ended up and how they got there:

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) (Line Item 0321-1600)

We made a historic push for increased funding of this line item.  Following the release of our Investing in Justice task force report, we implemented an intensive and far-reaching educational campaign, which resulted in media coverage from national to local newspapers to radio and television coverage.  We also held meetings with over 50 public officials including state Executive Branch leaders, state and federal legislators, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

We helped spread the word that 64% of qualified people seeking legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources.  That doesn’t even take into account those individuals who wait for hours on the phone with legal aid agencies and eventually give up because there simply is not enough staff to handle intakes, a number that may be as high as 50%.  We also were proud to share the accomplishments of the private bar, which operates in a public-private partnership with legal aid, donating immense amounts of time and money to the cause.

Finally, we discovered that up-front investments in legal aid will yield back-end savings from social welfare expenses.

  • For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of eviction and foreclosure cases, the state can save $2.69, primarily on shelter costs
  • For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of domestic violence, there is a $2 return, with $1 going to the state and $1 to the federal government in Medicare savings.
  • For every $1 spent on legal aid to provide federal benefits, the state will gain $5 in economic benefits to its citizens.

We are pleased to see that MLAC received $17 million in the Conference Committee budget, a $2 million (14%) increase over last year.  Thank you to everyone who responded to our many action alerts asking you to contact your Legislators to let them know the importance of funding legal aid.

Here is the final breakdown:

FY2015 Final: $15 million (before mid-year cut of 1.79%)

FY2016

  • Request: $25 million
  • Governor’s Budget: $15 million
  • House Final: $17 million
  • Senate Final: $17.1 million
  • Conference Committee: $17 million

The BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts recommended a $30 million increase over three years, so our work in this area is certainly not done.  But in the context of an overall budget increase of 3.5% and a $1.8B budget gap that confronted the new Governor, this budget lays a good foundation.

Trial Court

The Trial Court budget includes 15 different line items funding the judges, staffs, and operation of all of its departments.  The Trial Court requested a maintenance budget of $642.6 million.  This is the amount it would take to continue operations as normal.  It also provided the Legislature with 16 budget modules, essentially enhancement initiatives and projects it could choose to fund in order to update and innovate the court system.  Some examples included funding to create more specialty courts, expand Housing Court statewide, and provide additional materials to self-represented litigants.

We were satisfied with the final funding amount of $631.5 million and grateful for legislative support.  Within that number there were some particularly bright spots including increases to specialty court funding and the courts’ HOPE/MORR intensive probation program. Unfortunately, statewide expansion of Housing Court jurisdiction did not make it into the final budget.  However, we still hope to accomplish this legislatively through bills H1656/S901.

This is how the funding breaks down:

FY2015 Final: $612 million (before mid-year cut of 1.79%)

FY2016

  • Request: $642.6 million + modules
  • Governor’s Budget: $603 million
  • House Final: $622 million
  • Senate Final: $633 million
  • Conference Committee: $631.5 million

Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) (Line Items: 0321-1500, 0321-1504, 0321-1510, 0321-1518)

CPCS’s budget is comprised of four line items that include compensation for its own attorneys as well as private counselors (bar advocates).  It was the subject of a recent MBA Task Force report, which made a convincing case that public defenders, bar advocates, and assistant district attorneys merit higher salaries, and a state commission unanimously agreed with that proposition.  The Globe has also run a number of articles on the issue of underpaid attorneys in these positions (see here and here).

It is important to note when understanding CPCS’s line item that the annual budget has historically underfunded CPCS, the theory being that since CPCS cannot predict with exact certainty how many cases it will have to serve, it is provided with an initial appropriation that is supplemented as the fiscal year progresses and its expenses become clearer.  The Legislature and Governor have consistently honored and funded these requests.  The FY16 budget does not propose any changes to the current CPCS service delivery system.

Here is the CPCS budget breakdown:

FY2015 Final: $168 million

FY2016

  • Governor’s Budget: $186.7 million
  • House Final: $170.5 million
  • Senate Final: $173.6 million
  • Conference Committee: $170.6 million

Next Steps

The Governor now has a total of 10 days to review the budget (9 days left at the time of posting).  He can approve or veto the entire budget, veto or reduce specific line items, veto outside (i.e., non-monetary) sections, or submit changes as an amendment for legislative consideration.  Finally the Legislature has the chance to override any Governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in each branch.  We hope the Governor will approve all of our line items of interest without change and we look forward to keeping you updated on the latest budget news.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association