On July 31, the legislative session came to a close, complete with a few overrides, by way of a two-thirds vote in each branch, of Governor Charlie Baker’s line-item vetoes to the budget that legislators had sent him (H4450).
In signing the budget on July 8, amid news that the Commonwealth could be facing as much as a nearly $1 billion budget deficit, the Governor exercised his authority to target many legislative appropriations for cuts amounting to $256 million. The below numbers reflect the final state for the FY17 budget, after the Legislature reversed a number of those cuts, one by one, in the final days of session.
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
- FY17 Final: $18,000,000
We are thrilled that the FY17 budget included an extra $1 million over last year’s figure in funding for legal services—a top BBA priority—and grateful to the Governor for not only sparing the MLAC line-item from his veto pen but also highlighting this increase in his budget message. Given the extremely challenging budget situation, this increase is truly remarkable and demonstrates a clear commitment from both legislators and the Governor 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.
- 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
- FY17 Final: $638,940,097
It is unfortunate that this final number was not higher, but we nevertheless greatly appreciate that the Legislature showed its strong support for the judicial branch by overriding the Governor’s vetoes on eight of sixteen Trial Court line-items, restoring roughly $6 million of the $6.8 million in cuts. Failure to do so would have placed the courts in an alarming position, so we are grateful to legislators for making this a priority during the end-of-session crush of business and despite tough fiscal constraints. We also note that the Legislature overrode vetoes for two of the four line-items funding the Supreme Judicial Court, restoring over $100,000 in funding for the Commonwealth’s highest court.
The next few years will be very important for court funding in order for the courts to continue to provide the highest level of justice for the people of Massachusetts. Continued underfunding of the courts would exacerbate a number of challenges, from aggravating long-standing 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
- FY17 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 $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 include it. So we will back making the case for Housing Court expansion in the new session, starting next January. We look forward to the FY18 budget process and, as always, urge you to help us make your voice heard at the State House.
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association