Walk to the Hill Recap and Budget Update

Last week, hundreds of civil legal aid supporters rallied at the State House at Walk to the Hill, in support of adequate funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the largest provider of funding for legal services programs in the state. This event annually falls immediately after the release of the Governor’s budget recommendation and kicks off the BBA budget advocacy, which we previewed for you recently, in an exciting fashion. Keep reading for a recap of last week’s Walk, a request for those of you who couldn’t attend, and an update as to how our other budget priorities fared in Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal.

Walking for Justice

Walk to the Hill is coordinated by the Equal Justice Coalition, in which the BBA is an equal partner with the Massachusetts Bar Association and MLAC. Each year, it proves to be one of the largest advocacy events of its kind in the Commonwealth, and we are thrilled that 2018 was no different. Though the final tally is still being counted, roughly 700 lawyers and law students attended this year’s Walk to ask for an increase of $5 million in the MLAC line-item for a total appropriation of $23 million. We are grateful, as always, that the BBA got to be a part of this stunning show of support for access to justice.

Michael Avitzur, BBA Director of Government Relations & Public Affairs, addresses the BBA Walk to the Hill Breakfast attendees

As always, our Walk to the Hill day started off with a BBA Breakfast where we were joined by in-house counsel, solo and small firm practitioners, new lawyers, and dozens of UMass Law Students. At this standing-room-only breakfast, Director of Government Relations Mike Avitzur reviewed the talking points, the $23 million ask, and tips on how to talk to elected officials about civil legal aid. After fueling up on pastries and coffee, the BBA Breakfast attendees headed over to the State House and joined the crowd gathering in the Great Hall for the kick off to the Walk.

The impressive Walk to the Hill turnout has helped to build a solid base of support in the legislature, which increased the MLAC line-item from $15 million to $18 million between 2015 and 2017, even at a tough fiscal time when other-line items were not receiving that level of growth. As you know, the BBA’s own Investing in Justice Report has also been a critical tool in this advocacy, showing the great need for civil legal aid and the positive return on investment the state achieves from adequately funding legal services programs.

Walk to the Hill crowd at the Great Hall

BBA President Mark Smith highlighted the findings of this report in his speech to the crowd, noting both that an increase in state funding is critical to achieving access to justice for all and a smart investment. He also offered a few examples as to why, more than ever, a $5 million increase is necessary, pointing to recent natural disasters, and developments at the federal level, including threats to end federal funding for legal aid and changes to immigration policies, all of which are driving up demand for legal help at the state level.

For example, following Hurricane Maria, thousands of evacuees from Puerto Rico have sought resettlement in Massachusetts, including 2,000 school-aged children who need to enroll in local schools. These students, and their families, undoubtedly have pressing legal needs related to, in addition to education, other necessities like housing and health care.

Mark Smith, BBA President and partner at Laredo & Smith, addresses the crowd

President Smith further honed in on the impact of changes to immigration policies, offering two examples in the Commonwealth focused on students and children. First, he relayed a story from the Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services, Betsy Soule, who held a Know Your Rights briefing on immigration last year at Framingham High School after school administrators asked her to speak to students, many of whom were very worried about their parents’ immigration status, with some afraid to even continue coming to school lest they risk being confronted by an immigration official. Nearly 400 students attended that event, and when Betsy offered to stick around to take specific questions, 80 students took her up on this. Many students, and their families, are facing incredibly significant consequences due to immigration policy changes, including potential deportation, making access to a lawyer more imperative than ever.

Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants also made the connection between immigration policy changes and the need for increased funding for civil legal aid. He gave a number of striking examples as to why $5 million more than last year is needed, noting a dedicated mother of two from El Salvador who cleans Boston offices from 5pm to 2am now faces deportation and separation from her family as her Temporary Protected Status has been suddenly dropped, and a teenage girl who aspires to be an architect but may have to drop out of high school early to support her younger sisters if her parents are deported, as well as a DACA “Dreamer” who has been in the country since she was 7, is enrolled at Northeastern University and whose future is now up in the air. In his powerful remarks, the Chief Justice concluded that “it has never been more important for our brothers and sisters who are poor, undocumented, or displaced to have access to attorneys who can enforce and defend their rights, articulate their claims and defenses, and advocate their cause.”

Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court addresses the crowd

Individuals at the Walk also heard inspiring speeches from EJC Chair Louis Tompros, of WilmerHale and MBA President Chris Sullivan who both highlighted the special role that lawyers play in achieving justice. EJC Chair Tompros noted that legal aid lawyers are “absolute superheroes,” but they needed more resources to meet the great need for services in the Commonwealth, and President Sullivan noted that lawyers have a special duty to ensure that “justice for all” is more than just an empty slogan.

Finally, the crowd was lucky enough to hear a striking personal account of the importance of legal aid from Danielle, a client of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS). Danielle relayed her harrowing multi-year struggle to get much-needed benefits for her daughter with sickle-cell disease. She noted that “everyone that touched my case genuinely cares about my daughter,” and that having GBLS in her corner allowed her to focus on the health of her daughter, while letting the lawyers take care of the legal needs.

After that moving and energizing kick-off ceremony in the Great Hall, the 700 lawyers-turned-activists received instructions from Jacquelynne Bowman, executive director of GBLS, and filtered out to offices all over the State House, to spread the word to their respective legislators.

If you were unable to make it to the State House last Thursday, fear not. There is still time to “Talk to the Hill” by calling (or emailing) your legislators to urge them to support a $23 million appropriation for MLAC. As always, the MLAC FY19 Fact Sheet, EJC Talking Points, and our own Podcast on How to Talk to Your Legislator (about Civil Legal Aid) will give you all the tools you need to make the ask.

Plus, keep an eye out for upcoming BBA e-alerts, where we’ll be calling on members for additional outreach and support at each stage of the budget cycle, on MLAC funding and our other priorities. Speaking of which…

Governor Baker’s FY19 Budget                          

The day before Walk to the Hill Governor Baker released his proposed $40.905 billion FY19 Budget, which reflected a 2.6 percent spending increase over FY18. Even though the House and the Senate are free to go a totally different direction on each and every line-item, the Governor’s budget does set a tone for the debate, and it’s worth checking in on how some of our long-standing budget priorities fared. You can also read our recent FYI9 budget letter to the Governor here.

Governor Baker proposed the same 1% increase in funding to the MLAC line-item as last year, making the total proposed appropriation $18.18 million. This, of course, falls quite short of the $23 million ask, but armed with all of the above reasons for why increased civil legal aid funding makes sense, we’ve been able to achieve significant funding beyond the initial proposal in years past. This is what makes your Talk to the Hill and e-alert actions over the next few months so important!

The Governor’s overall Trial Court appropriation of $668.53 million signaled his understanding of the importance of an adequately funded judiciary, but falls $3.4 million short of maintenance funding. We are hopeful that the Legislature will build upon the Governor’s recommendation by adding at least that amount.

The Governor also included additional funds for the Probate and Family Court, which should prove especially helpful given the dire shortage of legal assistance in Care and Protection cases currently plaguing the state. And on the statewide expansion of the Housing Court, where the Governor has showed strong leadership, we were thrilled to see this leadership continue! You may recall that, following four years of advocacy, statewide expansion became a reality last year, when both $1 million in funding and authorizing language were included in the FY18 Budget. As we’ve outlined, in order for the full gamut of benefits to be expanded statewide, the Housing Court must be adequately staffed and include the important parallel expansion of programs like the Tenancy Preservation Project and Lawyer for the Day. As such, we are seeking $2.6 million in the FY19 budget to ensure the expansion runs smoothly and efficiently. The Governor recommended this full $2.6 million appropriation in the Housing Court Expansion line-item, and we will make the call for the House and Senate to include this amount in their budgets as well.

As we mentioned, the release of the Governor’s budget is just the first step in a months-long process, and the next major step doesn’t come until mid-April, when the House Ways & Means Committee will release its budget, triggering a flurry of amendments from the 160 House members seeking changes during the marathon floor debate. After that, it’s on to the Senate for the same series of events, with their version released in May. Then comes a conference committee to reconcile the inevitable differences between the two houses’ budgets, and when the conferees reach agreement, and their respective houses concur (typically a mere formality), that final legislative budget goes to the Governor for his signature, with the prerogative for line-item vetoes that the Legislature can then try to override. Be sure to check out our Geeking Out on the State Budget Podcast for a “101” on the Massachusetts Budget Process.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association