Budget Update: Senate Approves FY18 Budget

From the release of the Governor’s proposed budget to the House Ways and Means and final budgets and our advocacy in between, we’ve been keeping you posted as the Commonwealth moves closer to a final Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18) budget.  This time, our attention turns to the Senate, which has been busy with its own budget process over the past few weeks. First, the Senate Ways and Means Committee released their version of the budget, then amendments were filed and debates took place, and finally, last Thursday, the Senate approved its $40.4 billion budget. Now, it’s on to the Conference Committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate budget, and, once this version is approved by both chambers, it will be on to the Governor to review and either sign as is, sign with line-item vetoes and proposed amendments, or veto.

Two BBA budget priorities were the focus of some debate during this process:

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)

If you’ll recall, MLAC, the largest funder of civil legal aid in the Commonwealth, initially requested a $5 million increase to a $23 million appropriation in the FY2018 budget. The Governor’s budget allocated for a 1% increase, or $18,180,000. The House Ways and Means Committee proposal appropriated $1.5 million, which, with the help of an amendment filed by Representative Ruth Balser and approved unanimously, grew to $20 million in the final House budget.

Initial news coming out of the Senate budget process was not quite as positive, however, as the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposal only provided for an $18 million appropriation for the MLAC line-item (0321-1600).  Thankfully, civil legal aid has a great number of strong supporters in the Senate, and Senators Cynthia Creem and William Brownsberger filed Amendment #896, asking for a $2 million increase to the  MLAC appropriation.

Thanks to all of you who reached out to your Senators urging them to support  civil legal aid and sign on to this Amendment! In the end, Senators Barrett, Chang-Diaz, Rush, Eldridge, Cyr, Moore, L’Italien, McGee, Lewis, Welch, Gobi, Lesser, Brady, Flanagan, Lovely, and Boncore signed on as co-sponsors of the $20 million MLAC appropriation.

During the debate, Senator Creem explained why funding for civil legal aid matters. She pointed to the much needed assistance it provides to some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable individuals and communities, including those who facing domestic violence, eviction, deportation, inadequate health care, wage theft, and discrimination. She also noted that nearly two-thirds of eligible residents are now turned away and that every dollar invested saves the state between $2 and $5. Be sure to check out the BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts Investing in Justice Report for full details on how civil legal aid helps and why it’s a smart investment, including the full econometric basis for the return-on-investment figures that Senator Creem cited. Senator Brownsberger concluded the debate by stating that, given what is happening at the federal level, with the White House proposing to eliminate federal funding for civil legal aid, state funding is needed now more than ever.

We are happy to report that, thanks to your outreach and the strong support from the full Senate, the Amendment was adopted unanimously and the final MLAC line-item came in at $20 million, matching the House budget!

Statewide Expansion of the Housing Court

As you know, the statewide expansion of the Housing Court, with all its accompanying benefits,  started off the budget process with a $1 million appropriation in the Governor’s budget, slightly below the Trial Court’s requested $1.2 million. Unfortunately, however, the House budget did not allocate any funds for this expansion, nor did it include language authorizing the expansion.

We are pleased to report that the Senate Ways and Means budget brought back the $1 million appropriation for the statewide expansion of the Housing Court line-item item (0336-0003). However, this line-item was up for debate as Senator Bruce Tarr filed Amendment #897, to zero out the Housing Court expansion appropriation. During the debate, Senator Tarr began by noting that he believes in the Housing Court and thinks it is a cost-effective resolution but was merely concerned about balancing the budget.

In response, Senator Karen Spilka, Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, noted that her district, along with one-third of the state’s population overall, does not have access to Housing court, which specializes in complex housing issues, enforces codes, protects people from homelessness,  and addresses mortgage fraud among other important matters.  She further provided that Housing Court is both effective and efficient, as it has the lowest cost per case of the whole Trial Court and houses programs like the Tenancy Preservation Program, which saves the State millions of dollars each year by reducing the prevalence of expensive emergency shelter stays. Senator Tarr ultimately accepted this justification and withdrew his amendment.

Facing no other objections, the statewide expansion of the Housing Court ended up with a $1 million appropriation in the Senate budget!  Now the Conference Committee will have to consider whether to adopt the Senate’s version.

As the budget moves on to the Conference Committee, we’ll keep you posted about these items and any changes in our other priority areas, including the Trial Court and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), which remained relatively level through the Senate process.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association