Budget Update: House Approves FY19 Budget

Following the Governor’s proposed budget, and the House Ways and Means proposed budget, the Massachusetts House of Representatives approved its FY19 budget last week.  We want to extend a big thanks to all of you who responded to our call to action and reached out to your Representatives, urging them to support key access-to-justice amendments.

While we have already turned our attention to the Senate, sending a letter to the Senate Ways and Means Committee this week, here’s where things currently stand in relation to our BBA budget priorities.

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)

            We’ve made the case for adequate funding for MLAC, the largest provider of funding for legal services programs in the state, many times over.  Since 2014, this advocacy has relied on the BBA’s own Investing in Justice Report, which demonstrated the great need for legal aid, with nearly two-thirds of otherwise eligible individuals turned away due to a lack of resources, and revealed the great fiscal benefits of investing in legal aid, with millions of dollars saved by the State and millions more brought in by federal benefits.

Unfortunately, due to increasing demand and a lack of funding, nearly two-thirds of those seeking help, or 45,000 individuals, continue to be turned away each year. Plus, changes in federal policies on issues like immigration and cuts to anti-poverty programs, threaten to increase the demand even further, just as continuing challenges like the opioid crises and emerging issues like the resettlement of individuals impacted by Hurricane Maria and other natural disasters add to the burden borne by legal services. And the consequences of this lack of help can be devastating, as one’s family, home, health, and job can be at stake in civil legal matters. As mentioned, though, our Report also revealed that increasing funding for civil legal aid was not just critical for expanding access to justice, it also was a wise investment, and actually pays for itself, and more, by saving the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care.

This year, we are supporting MLAC’s ask for a $5 million increase in the MLAC budget line-item (#0321-1600), for a $23 million total appropriation.  Though an additional $5 million would still not come close to meeting the great need for civil legal aid, it would have tremendous impacts and allow for an additional 7,500 Massachusetts residents to receive this critical resource.

The Governor proposed an $18.18 million appropriation, while the final House budget appropriated $20.75 million. We are very grateful to the leadership of Representative Ruth Balser and Representative Clair Cronin, who filed an amendment for additional funding for civil legal aid, beyond the $2 million increase provided by Ways and Means, and the more than 100 co-sponsors, who made the additional $750,000 achieved in the amendment process possible!

Statewide Housing Court Expansion

As you know by now, we were part of the coalition calling for statewide expansion of the Housing Court for nearly four years, and we were thrilled when funding and authorizing language for the expansion was included in last year’s FY18 budget.

This expansion means that the 84 cities and towns that previously lacked access—representing nearly a third of the state’s population—now enjoy the many advantages Housing Court has to offer. This includes judges who have specialized knowledge on all, often complex housing law matters, housing specialists who help tenants and landlords settle and mediate cases, and the Lawyer for the Day program which offers assistance for unrepresented tenants and landlords who otherwise cannot afford it. In addition, the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) provides a unique intervention that enables trained counselors to assist with services in cases involving persons with disabilities, helping to prevent homelessness and shelter stays.

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 TPP and Lawyer for the Day. As such, we are supporting a $2.6 million appropriation for line-item 0336-0003, which would fully fund Housing Court expansion, and a $1.3 million appropriation for line-item 7004-3045, which would fully fund the TPP.

Governor Baker, who has long been a leader on ensuring expansion of the Court, proposed full-funding for expansion, while the House budget appropriates $1.5 million. The TPP line-item fared a bit better in the final House budget, resulting in an increase of $250,000 from the Governor’s proposed $500,000. A special thanks goes to the leadership of Rep. Chris Walsh, who filed an amendment on the expansion line-item and Rep. Byron Rushing, who filed an amendment on the TPP line-item.  We hope the Senate will continue to prioritize the expansion of these important measures this year.

Trial Court

We also know just how important it is that the Trial Court receives adequate funding, and we are continuing our advocacy in support of the department’s maintenance funding request and their additional modules that will further enhance efficiencies and improve the user experience.

The Trial Court is comprised of seven departments, which handle nearly all of the cases in the Commonwealth and represent the main point of contact for Massachusetts residents who have legal issues they need resolved. In spite of steady increases in their appropriations in the years since the Great Recession, the Trial Court remains underfunded. Over the last few years, it has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less. As a result of this work, they have been able to continue the efficient and effective operation of the courts, even with a 19% reduction in staffing since FY02.

Notwithstanding the success of these transformational efforts, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years. For example, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of upgrades in the area of security systems. These upgrades are necessary to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public, ensuring the Trial Court remains effective and accessible for all residents of the Commonwealth.

For the FY19 Budget, the Trial Court is requesting a maintenance-level appropriation of $671.1 million. The Governor’s Budget went some way towards this maintenance funding, and the final House budget included the full maintenance request.  We have urged the Senate to ensure this essential branch of government receives the funding it needs to offer adequate access to justice for the residents of the Commonwealth.

Committee for Public Counsel Services

Finally, we continue to advocate for fully funding CPCS operations in the FY19 budget, through a series of line-items (0321-1500, 0321-1510, 0321-1520).  As you know, CPCS plays a vital role in our judicial system, providing representation to indigent persons in all criminal and some civil cases and administrative proceedings, in keeping with the right to counsel under our laws and the Constitutions of Massachusetts and the United States. Adequate funding would help CPCS to increase salaries of their staff attorneys, who are woefully underpaid in comparison to their colleagues in other states, and to attorneys of similar experience in the executive branch. This is not merely our conclusion but that of the Commission to Study Compensation of Assistant District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. The BBA supports the Commission’s recommendation that minimum salaries for these attorneys (as well as for Assistant District Attorneys) be increased, over time, to match the corresponding minimums for executive branch attorneys.

 

Inclusion of adequate funding for CPCS in the FY19 budget is especially critical because the state faces what the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court has called a “constitutional emergency.” In cases where a child is facing removal from parental custody, the parents and children have a right to representation at a hearing within 72 hours. There are too few attorneys taking up these cases, and as a result, children and parents, especially in the western parts of the state, are being denied their constitutional right to a timely hearing. Adequate funding, in conjunction with an increase in compensation for bar advocates, or private attorneys who defend indigent clients, would assist CPCS in finding attorneys willing to take on these difficult cases and protect the constitutional rights of these parents and children.

The House Budget seemed to recognize some of these crucial needs by significantly increasing the appropriation for compensation paid to private counsel. However, the direct appropriation still falls quite short of CPCS’s $257.78 million ask, and we hope the Senate will support CPCS this full amount and help to ensure the agency is able to efficiently and effectively provide their necessary services.

Stay tuned for more opportunities to support the judiciary and equal access to justice as the budget debates continue!

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association