BBA Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Advocacy Begins

It’s that time of year when our budget priorities become a focus here in the Government Relations Department of the Boston Bar Association (BBA). We previewed our budget campaign before Walk to the Hill earlier this year, and last month Governor Charlie Baker released his Budget for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20). You can read our letter to the Governor here.  Now, our attention turns the Legislature as the House, and then the Senate pass their own budget proposals in the coming months.

For a refresher on where things ended up for the FY19 budget, visit this blog post, and keep reading to learn more about our funding asks for FY20.

Walk to the Hill Recap and MLAC Budget Ask

Before getting into the budget details, we first want to thank all those who made Walk to the Hill 2019 such a success!  On January 24, hundreds of attorneys braved the rain and rallied at the State House to advocate for an increase in funding from the Mass Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the largest funder of legal services programs in the Commonwealth. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Walk, annually hosted by the Equal Justice Coalition, an organization formed in partnership with the BBA, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and MLAC.

Before heading over to the State House, law students, in-house counsel, and solo and small firm practitioners gathered at the BBA for a breakfast and refresher on speaking about legal aid with legislators. Once across the street, attendees heard moving remarks from President Jon Albano,  SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, EJC Chair Louis Tompros, MLAC Executive Director Lynne Parker, MBA President Chris Kenney, a client who received legal assistance from GBLS, and GBLS Executive Director Jacquelynne Bowman.  As usual, many of the speeches relied on the BBA’s own Investing in Justice report to highlight that funding for legal is not only the right thing to do, but a sound investment that pays for itself, and then some. (ICYMI: that same report just got a mention in the Boston Globe in a piece related to the provision of counsel in eviction proceedings). After the speeches, attorneys spread out across the State House, including Jon Albano and MetroWest Legal Services Executive Director and BBA Council member Betsy Soulé, who had productive meetings with Representative Alice Peisch and Senator Michael Barrett, both long-time supporters of MLAC funding.  Read the full Walk to the Hill recap by the EJC here.

            Walk to the Hill marks the beginning of a months-long budget campaign for civil legal aid, and this year we are asking for a $5 million increase in funding in the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) budget, for a $26 million total appropriation. The day before the Walk, the Governor released his own budget, which offered level-funding for MLAC. Now we turn our attention to the Legislature, where we’ll be urging the House and the Senate to include the full $26 million request.

Trial Court

As usual, we’ll also be urging for adequate funding for the Trial Court appropriation. The Trial Court, which is made up of seven court departments, handles the vast majority of cases in the Commonwealth, and as a result, acts as the primary point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who are seeking resolution of a legal issue. In order to ensure the efficient operation of the judicial system and fair, impartial, and equal access to justice, it is essential that the Trial Court receive adequate funding.

Over the last few years, the Trial Court has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less money and less staff. Their current request for maintenance funding of 6,359 positions represents a decrease of 161 positions below the FY16 staffing level and a 19% reduction since FY02.

Despite these efforts, and even with steady increases in funding from the Governor and Legislature, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years. In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of security system upgrades, which 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. That’s why we are urging that the FY20 budget include the Trial Court’s full requested maintenance-level appropriation.  

CPCS

This year, we will also be urging, as usual, for adequate and timely funding for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS),which plays a vital role in our judicial system, providing representation to indigent persons in criminal and civil cases and administrative proceedings, in keeping with the right to counsel under our laws and the Constitution. 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 2015 recommendation that minimum salaries for these attorneys be increased, over time, to match the corresponding minimums for executive branch attorneys, and increased funding for CPCS would be a significant and beneficial step in that direction.

CPCS funding in the FY20budget 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 would allow CPCS to increase compensation for bar advocates, or private attorneys who defend indigent clients, which would help to find attorneys willing to take on these tough cases and protect the constitutional rights of these parents and children.

Residential Re-Entry Services

As you’ll recall, last year we added an additional item to our budget priorities: funding for residential re-entry services to reduce recidivism. Massachusetts recently took a huge leap towards ensuring our criminal justice system is more fair and effective. 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 funding 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. This year, we are once again supporting a $5 million appropriation for these important services.

As our budget advocacy gets underway, there will be plenty of opportunities beyond Walk to the Hill for you to join us in advocating for our priorities, which will help to ensure access to justice for all residents of the Commonwealth and an efficient and effective judicial system. Watch for e-alerts coming your way, asking you to reach out (again) to your elected officials at key points in the process during budget season! In the meantime, you can learn about the state budget process by listening to this podcast focused on civil legal aid in particular, and about the federal budget and budget advocacy at that level from our Federal Budget Process 101 podcast.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association