BBA Budget Update: House Ways and Means Proposes FY18 Budget

As we’ve reported, BBA advocacy on the Budget for FY18 is now in full gear. This means we’ve been keeping a close watch on all budget-related happenings, and on Monday the House Ways and Means Committee released their $40.3 billion proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18), which begins on July 1.

With this release, members of the House are gearing up for a busy few weeks, as they will file and debate proposed amendments before the final House budget is passed. Then, it’ll be the Senate’s turn to propose, debate, and pass their own version of the budget. After that, a conference committee will attempt to reconcile the differences in the two budgets, and once approved by both chambers of the Legislature, the Governor has ten days to review and sign it. The Governor cannot add additional items but can veto or reduce particular line-items or veto the entire budget. The House and Senate can then, with a two-thirds roll-call vote in each chamber, vote to override any vetoes.

The House Ways and Means Committee proposed budget contains some significant departures from the Governor’s budget, H.1, in the areas that we’ve highlighted as our state funding priorities, including:

MLAC

As the largest provider of funds for state legal-services agencies, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) is a crucial piece of providing access to justice for Massachusetts residents. The Governor’s proposed budget called for only a 1% increase in the MLAC line-item, leaving the proposed appropriation at $18.18 million. This $180,000 increase is far below the BBA-supported ask of a $5 million increase that would provide for a $23 million MLAC line-item.

The House Ways and Means Budget recommends an increase of $1.5 million for the MLAC line-item to a total of $19.5 million. This moves MLAC a significant step closer to the $5 million request and will allow civil legal aid programs to take on more than 2,000 new cases.

In the words of Executive Director Lonnie Powers, MLAC is “incredibly pleased that the House Ways and Means Committee recognizes the role that civil legal aid funding plays in promoting equal access to justice for low-income residents of the Commonwealth.” Notably, House Ways and Means Committee Chairperson Brian Dempsey specifically mentioned the inclusion of MLAC in his letter explaining the budget, highlighting it as part of the House’s own commitment “to protecting and providing for [the] Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents.”

We join MLAC in expressing gratitude that the House Ways and Means Committee continues to recognize and value the importance of civil legal aid. As BBA President-Elect Mark Smith, of Laredo & Smith, was able to relay at a legislative briefing last week, and as we have expressed consistently over the past years, civil legal aid is not only necessary to ensure access to justice, it is also a smart investment that offers many economic benefits to the state.

Overall, this is undoubtedly good news for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, but given the shaky position of the federal budget and President Trump’s proposal to zero-out funding for the main federal funder of civil legal aid, the need for more state funding for MLAC is still critical. An increase of $1.5 million is a good start, but even with that, the state will still be forced to turn away the majority of eligible people who need legal assistance.

Fortunately, Representative Ruth Balser filed an amendment (#822) on Thursday to increase the House Ways and Means Committee recommendation by an additional $1.5 million, bringing the total proposed appropriation to $21 million. As the house budget debates begin, it is crucial that your representatives know how important civil legal aid is to you.

You can contact them now, using this easy tool from our partners at the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC), to ask them to co-sponsor the amendment. If you want to reach out in person or on the phone, you can find your representative here, get guidance from these talking points and resources, and listen to the BBA Issue Spot Podcast with chair of the EJC Louis Tompros for a primer on how to talk to your legislator (especially about civil legal aid).

Trial Court

Adequate funding of the Trial Court, another BBA priority, is necessary to ensure the continued efficient and accessible functioning of our judicial system. The Governor’s proposed budget recommended a 1% increase for the Trial Court, for a total appropriation of $646.8 million. Mostly because of an $11.7 million judicial pay increase that passed after the Governor released his budget in January, this now falls below the Trial Court’s revised funding request of $661,368,224 for FY18.

In more good news, the House Ways and Means Committee recommendation specifically provided for these pay raises in full, as the line-item related the payroll costs of the justices in the seven departments of the Trial Court (0330-0101) moved from $58.5 million in the Governor’s recommendation to $70.3 million. By including this increase, the Committee will allow the Trial Court to continue the gains it has made in recent years on working smarter and getting more done with less money and less staff. Ultimately, this will help to ensure that the Trial Court remains effective and accessible for all Massachusetts residents.

Despite this good news, there was one significant Trial Court line-item missing entirely from the House Ways and Means recommendation, which brings us to…

Statewide Expansion of the Housing Court

For the past few years, we’ve been discussing the reasons why statewide expansion of the Housing Court makes sense. Currently, about one-third of the state lacks access to Housing Court and the benefits that come along with it, including the judges’ expertise in all housing matters, the availability of Housing Specialists who can facilitate settlements and help parties avoid expensive litigation costs, and programs like Lawyer for the Day, which assist pro-se litigants and as a result preserve judicial resources and ensure the efficient operation of the Court.

In an important step, the Governor’s budget recommended $1 million for the expansion. After the release of the Governor’s budget Representative Chris Walsh sent a letter, signed onto by 42 other Representatives, to the House Ways and Means Committee, urging them to include the full $1.2 million needed for successful initial expansion in their FY18 budget proposal. Unfortunately, the Committee removed the Housing Court Expansion line-item entirely.

However, the Housing Court Expansion line-item can still be included in the Senate budget, so now is the time to let your Senator know about the importance of allocating $1.2 million for this expansion. Additionally, two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, have  been filed to advance housing court expansion, so you can urge your legislators to support this legislation to ensure that nearly one-third of the state is no longer excluded from the benefits of the Housing Court. Make sure to check out these resources and tips in our how-to-talk-to-your-legislator podcast!

As outlined above, there is still a ways to go in the budget process, which means there is plenty of time left for the BBA, and all of you as individuals, to advocate for adequate funding to ensure that Massachusetts is able to provide access to justice for all its residents. Keep watching this space for more news on budget developments and how you can get involved!

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association