Budget Update

On July 8, the Governor signed the budget amid news that the Commonwealth faces a nearly $1 billion budget deficit.  Despite vetoing $256 million from the Legislature’s conference committee budget (H4450), the Governor maintained a $1 million increase for civil legal aid funding and highlighted the increase in his budget message.

From here, the budget returns to the Legislature, which can override the Governor’s vetoes with a two-thirds vote in each branch.  The House votes first, followed by the Senate. Here is a breakdown of where things currently stand (updated to reflect the Governor’s final budget):

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)

  • Request: $27,000,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $17,170,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $18,000,000
  • House Final Budget: $18,500,000 ($500,000 added through a floor amendment)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $17,000,000
  • Senate Final: $18,000,000 ($1,000,000 added through a floor amendment)
  • Conference Committee Final: $18,000,000
  • Governor Final: $18,000,000

We are thrilled that the Governor included an extra $1 million in funding for legal services over last year’s figure.  Given the extremely challenging budget situation, this increase is truly remarkable and demonstrates a clear commitment from legislators to assist those in need of civil legal aid.  It also continues to show the message of our BBA Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts—that MLAC funding produces a positive return on investment by preventing “back-end” costs—has gotten through.

Trial Court

  • Request: $654,374,856 + Modules for additional initiatives
  • Governor’s Budget: $638,606,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • House Final Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $643,484,303
  • Senate Final Budget: $643,484,303
  • Conference Committee Final: $639,762,683
  • Governor Final: $632,969,055

It is unfortunate that this number was not higher, but we nevertheless appreciate that this funding amount is a slight increase over last year’s appropriation of $631.5 million.  In order for the courts to continue to provide the highest level of justice for the people of Massachusetts, they need adequate funding.  Underfunding of the courts will present a number of challenges, from infrastructure problems (many court houses need significant repairs and updates as well as security updates) to stifling innovations such as the Specialty Courts program, which addresses the issues underlying criminal behavior and produces great outcomes by reducing recidivism.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion

  • Request: $2,400,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $1,000,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $0
  • House Final Budget: $0
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $1,194,614
  • Senate Final Budget: $1,194,614
  • Conference Committee Final: $0
  • Governor Final: $0

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court has statutory jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases that involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing, as well as code enforcement cases. One of its greatest strengths is that its judges are experienced in these issues and best able to address the complexities and nuances of each case.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget proposal included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and operational for the last 6 months of FY17, but the House did not follow his lead, leaving this measure out of its budget entirely.  The Senate provided similar language and funding to the Governor’s proposal, but disappointingly, the Conference Committee did not.  We hope this measure will resurface at a later stage in this year’s session, even if only in the form of legislative language authorizing the expansion (but with no money attached).

We look forward to keeping you updated on the latest budget developments and, as always, urge you to make your voice heard at the State House.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association