Following weeks of conference committee debate, the final FY19 budget proposal finally made its way to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk last week, for signature and the opportunity for line-item vetoes. As you may have seen in our statement last week, the BBA was very pleased with how the final plan produced by the conference committee addressed our budget priorities, and we are happy to report that the Governor also approved most of our budget priorities in full.
For a recap of how we got here, check out our past Issue Spots on the Governor’s proposed budget, the House budget, and the Senate budget. Keep reading to learn more about where our priority items ended up in the Final FY19 Budget!
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. As you’ll recall, this year we asked for a $5 million increase in the MLAC budget line-item (#0321-1600), for a total appropriation of $23 million. The Governor proposed an $18.18 million appropriation, while the final House budget appropriated $20.75 million and the Senate budget appropriated $21 million.
We are very pleased that the conference committee recognized just how important funding for civil legal aid is to the Commonwealth, appropriating $21,040,000 in H.4800, and the Governor approved the full amount! A $3 million increase in the line-item will enable MLAC-funded programs to assist thousands more qualified Massachusetts residents while saving the state money elsewhere in the budget.
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. However, for the expansion to be successful, the full panoply of benefits must be afforded to all residents of the Commonwealth, so the Housing Court must be adequately staffed and include the important parallel expansion of programs like Lawyer for the Day and the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP), which 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 light of this, we supported 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, a long-time supporter of statewide expansion, proposed the full $2.6 million, while the House budget appropriated $1.5 million and the Senate $2.6 million. Thankfully, the conference committee followed the Senate’s lead on this and provided for the full $2.6 million, which the Governor approved. For the TPP, the Governor proposed $500,000, the House $750,000, and the Senate the full $1.3 million. The conference committee also followed the Senate’s lead here, appropriating the full $1.3 million in H.4800, which the Governor also approved. We are grateful the Governor continued his leadership in the area and approved the full amounts for both of these important line-items, ensuring the benefits of the Housing Court are fairly and efficiently extended to all residents of the Commonwealth.
We also know just how important it is that the Trial Court receives adequate funding, and we have been, as usual, advocating for funding sufficient to allow it to maintain operations at current standards and also further enhance efficiencies and improve the user experience. For the FY19 Budget, we supported the Trial Court’s request for a maintenance-level appropriation of $671.1 million. As the main point of contact with the justice system for most Massachusetts residents with a legal issue, an adequately-funded Trial Court is necessary for ensuring the fair administration of justice.
The Governor’s budget went some way towards this maintenance funding, and the final House and Senate budgets included the full maintenance request. Fortunately, the conference committee also recognized the importance of these line-items and provided the resources necessary for the court system to continue to operate at a high level. The Governor signed off on the full Trial Court appropriations in H.4800, helping 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 continued 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.
The conference committee amount in H.4800 signaled its support for CPCS through its generous FY19 appropriations, which thankfully the Governor approved in full. Unfortunately, the FY19 budget will not include an increase in the billable hours cap for private assigned counsel, but the BBA will continue to advocate for it.
Residential Re-Entry Services
As you may have seen in our recent advocacy alert, we added an additional item for our budget ask in the Senate: funding for residential re-entry services to reduce recidivism. (Check out our letter to the Senate where we provide more detail as to just why this line-item is so important). As you know, Massachusetts recently took a huge leap towards ensuring our criminal justice system is more fair and effective through the enactment of historic reforms earlier this year. While there is much to celebrate, there is still much to be done. Each year thousands of Massachusetts residents are released from jails and prisons, many with little or no resources to help in securing essential needs like employment and housing.
Because of this, the BBA recommended in its report, No Time to Wait, that the state “ensure adequate funding and accountability for anti-recidivism efforts.” One step towards this is through line-item 0339-1011, which would offer grants for community-based residential reentry services that provide housing, workforce development, and case management for recently released individuals, fostering connections and stability for those re-entering the community.
The House budget proposed a $3 million appropriation for this line-item, the Senate budget did not appropriate any funds to this line-item, but we were grateful the Conference Committee recognized its import and included the full $5 million ask we endorsed. Unfortunately, the Governor reduced this final figure to $2.5 million, but we are hopeful that the Legislature will pursue an override to provide the full appropriation. That would go a long way toward extending this important service in the Commonwealth, and perhaps lay the groundwork for similar initiatives to be expanded in future years.
We are grateful to Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts House and Senate, notably Speaker Robert DeLeo, former (as of yesterday) Senate President Harriette Chandler, House Ways and Means Chair Jeffrey Sánchez, and Senate Ways and Means Chair (and new Senate President) Karen Spilka, for their recognition of the importance of these BBA budget priorities. And a special thanks goes out to our members who responded to our numerous asks and reached out to your legislators urging them to support key amendments related to access to justice and criminal justice reform.
You can trust that we’ll be back next year, once again advocating for those line-items that will help to facilitate access to justice for all in the Commonwealth and ensure the fair administration of justice!
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association