Posts Categorized: MLAC

Budget Process Nearly Complete

This week, the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee approved a final FY2016 budget and yesterday it was enacted in both the House and Senate.  Let’s take a look at where our items of interest ended up and how they got there:

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) (Line Item 0321-1600)

We made a historic push for increased funding of this line item.  Following the release of our Investing in Justice task force report, we implemented an intensive and far-reaching educational campaign, which resulted in media coverage from national to local newspapers to radio and television coverage.  We also held meetings with over 50 public officials including state Executive Branch leaders, state and federal legislators, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

We helped spread the word that 64% of qualified people seeking legal aid are turned away due to lack of resources.  That doesn’t even take into account those individuals who wait for hours on the phone with legal aid agencies and eventually give up because there simply is not enough staff to handle intakes, a number that may be as high as 50%.  We also were proud to share the accomplishments of the private bar, which operates in a public-private partnership with legal aid, donating immense amounts of time and money to the cause.

Finally, we discovered that up-front investments in legal aid will yield back-end savings from social welfare expenses.

  • For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of eviction and foreclosure cases, the state can save $2.69, primarily on shelter costs
  • For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of domestic violence, there is a $2 return, with $1 going to the state and $1 to the federal government in Medicare savings.
  • For every $1 spent on legal aid to provide federal benefits, the state will gain $5 in economic benefits to its citizens.

We are pleased to see that MLAC received $17 million in the Conference Committee budget, a $2 million (14%) increase over last year.  Thank you to everyone who responded to our many action alerts asking you to contact your Legislators to let them know the importance of funding legal aid.

Here is the final breakdown:

FY2015 Final: $15 million (before mid-year cut of 1.79%)

FY2016

  • Request: $25 million
  • Governor’s Budget: $15 million
  • House Final: $17 million
  • Senate Final: $17.1 million
  • Conference Committee: $17 million

The BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts recommended a $30 million increase over three years, so our work in this area is certainly not done.  But in the context of an overall budget increase of 3.5% and a $1.8B budget gap that confronted the new Governor, this budget lays a good foundation.

Trial Court

The Trial Court budget includes 15 different line items funding the judges, staffs, and operation of all of its departments.  The Trial Court requested a maintenance budget of $642.6 million.  This is the amount it would take to continue operations as normal.  It also provided the Legislature with 16 budget modules, essentially enhancement initiatives and projects it could choose to fund in order to update and innovate the court system.  Some examples included funding to create more specialty courts, expand Housing Court statewide, and provide additional materials to self-represented litigants.

We were satisfied with the final funding amount of $631.5 million and grateful for legislative support.  Within that number there were some particularly bright spots including increases to specialty court funding and the courts’ HOPE/MORR intensive probation program. Unfortunately, statewide expansion of Housing Court jurisdiction did not make it into the final budget.  However, we still hope to accomplish this legislatively through bills H1656/S901.

This is how the funding breaks down:

FY2015 Final: $612 million (before mid-year cut of 1.79%)

FY2016

  • Request: $642.6 million + modules
  • Governor’s Budget: $603 million
  • House Final: $622 million
  • Senate Final: $633 million
  • Conference Committee: $631.5 million

Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) (Line Items: 0321-1500, 0321-1504, 0321-1510, 0321-1518)

CPCS’s budget is comprised of four line items that include compensation for its own attorneys as well as private counselors (bar advocates).  It was the subject of a recent MBA Task Force report, which made a convincing case that public defenders, bar advocates, and assistant district attorneys merit higher salaries, and a state commission unanimously agreed with that proposition.  The Globe has also run a number of articles on the issue of underpaid attorneys in these positions (see here and here).

It is important to note when understanding CPCS’s line item that the annual budget has historically underfunded CPCS, the theory being that since CPCS cannot predict with exact certainty how many cases it will have to serve, it is provided with an initial appropriation that is supplemented as the fiscal year progresses and its expenses become clearer.  The Legislature and Governor have consistently honored and funded these requests.  The FY16 budget does not propose any changes to the current CPCS service delivery system.

Here is the CPCS budget breakdown:

FY2015 Final: $168 million

FY2016

  • Governor’s Budget: $186.7 million
  • House Final: $170.5 million
  • Senate Final: $173.6 million
  • Conference Committee: $170.6 million

Next Steps

The Governor now has a total of 10 days to review the budget (9 days left at the time of posting).  He can approve or veto the entire budget, veto or reduce specific line items, veto outside (i.e., non-monetary) sections, or submit changes as an amendment for legislative consideration.  Finally the Legislature has the chance to override any Governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in each branch.  We hope the Governor will approve all of our line items of interest without change and we look forward to keeping you updated on the latest budget news.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

The Public-Private Pairing Behind Civil Legal Aid

As we look forward to the Boston Bar Foundation’s (BBF) popular Passport to Pairings event (for a fun two minute diversion, our Voices of the Bar page asks, “What Is Your Favorite Dynamic Duo?”), it is worth considering legal aid from the same perspective.  In many ways, both monetarily and in service, civil legal representation is a public-private partnership.

We talk all the time about the importance of legal services funding and the findings of our Investing in Justice report.  The report gives the full picture of legal services funding, explaining how a drop in IOLTA, due largely to low interest rates, coincided with a growing number of residents struggling to get by, and the increased complexity of laws and the courts.  All of this combines to place significant limits on access to justice for many individuals facing challenges relating to life necessities, such as shelter or personal safety.  These problems persist despite the combined efforts of the public-private partnership.  The report also proves that additional funding for legal aid results in a positive return on investment, saving the state on back-end costs such as emergency shelter and medical services, while also stimulating the economy by bringing more money into the state through federal benefits.

The Legislature, representing the public aspect of this partnership, has long supported civil legal aid.  On Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee released its budget proposal.  We were pleased to see increases over the House budget for CPCS ($3 million more) and the Trial Court (about $11 million more – enough to rule out the need for staff reductions) and a slight increase over last year’s funding level for legal services funding ($268,500).  The Senate process continues with floor amendments.  Senator William Brownsberger is sponsoring a $5 million amendment, seeking a total of $20 million, for the MLAC line item (0321-1600) from the Senate.  We strongly urge you to contact your Senator today and ask him or her to vote for the Senator Brownsberger MLAC amendment.  This may be our last chance to make the case for civil legal aid during this budget cycle.

From a funding perspective, both the Legislature and the bar support legal aid.  To start with, attorney registration contains an “opt-out” contribution whereby attorneys donate $50 to support legal aid unless they opt-out.  This alone raises about $1.1 million annually for MA IOLTA.  Some attorney fees also provide modest additions, such as roughly $200,000 for pro hac vice admission of out-of-state attorneys to take cases in Massachusetts.

While the Legislature has generously funded civil legal aid for decades, attorneys also voluntarily contribute millions of dollars.  They give this money to fundraising drives of agencies like Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Community Legal Aid (CLA) as well as to foundations like the BBF and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation.

Unfortunately, these foundations historically granted money they received from IOLTA funds.  They continue to do so, but as IOLTA has dropped, so has their funding capabilities.  As a result, the total legal services grants awarded by the BBF have plummeted from just under $2 million in FY2007 to $825,500 in FY2014.  To address this huge shortfall, the BBF increased the amount of its own funds directed to civil legal aid grants by over $100,000 in each of the last several years, to the point that it funded over 46% of its FY14 grants.  Since 2009, the BBF has dedicated over $2.2 million of its own funds to legal services grants.

In addition, the private bar also donates millions of dollars’ worth of pro bono hours.  Under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are expected to donate at least 25 hours per year of their time to provide free legal services to those in need.  Very few professions have any comparable standards, and Massachusetts lawyers embrace this role.  We conservatively calculated that in 2013, lawyers in the state provided in excess of 82,000 pro bono hours through four legal aid providers alone, at a value of more than $17.6 million.  This is likely only a fraction of the full amount of pro bono services provided in the state.

As you can see, both sides are doing their part:  The Legislature generously increases MLAC funding each year, even during tough economic times, and the private bar donates its time and money.  Yet there is still a long way to go.  With 58,000 individuals turned away from legal services providers in the last year due to lack of resources, everyone needs to step up.  We applaud the Legislature for the generous monetary support we know they will provide in FY16.  We urge the bar to keep up the great work and to take on one more task – please ask your Senator to vote for Senator William Brownsberger’s $5 million budget amendment in the Senate.  With this public-private partnership, we know civil legal aid can’t lose!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association