Good News from the Governor

It’s been a busy week for Governor Patrick.  First, the Governor delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address on Monday.   He praised the House and Senate for the great work they did last year on some difficult issues including state pension reform, municipal health benefits, schools and transportation.  More importantly, the Governor outlined his top three priorities for this year –health care containment reform, a streamlined community college system and sentencing reform.

Talking about his ambitious agenda for the year, the Governor asked the Legislature to send him a balanced sentencing bill that includes real reforms for both the Habitual Offender law and mandatory minimum sentencing reforms.  Referencing overcrowded prisons and the high cost of housing inmates, he insisted that the Legislature send him a bill that is tough on violent criminals while providing greater opportunities for rehabilitation of non-violent drug offenders.  The Governor emphasized that a strong and smart crime bill is good for public safety and good for Massachusetts.  The BBA couldn’t agree more.

In November, the Senate passed a more comprehensive crime bill that didn’t repeal but reduced mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.  At the time the House of Representatives only advanced the Habitual Offender law.  But now the House is reviewing those sentencing reforms and is expected to advance their own version this session.

The BBA continues to advocate for improvements to the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, particularly with regard to sentencing and prisoner re-entry.  Ahead of the Senate’s vote on their crime bill, BBA President Lisa Goodheart issued a statement arguing that sentencing reforms are fiscally responsible and enhance public safety.  While encouraged by Governor Patrick’s recent statements on these issues, we are eager to see what the House will include in its sentencing reform bill.

On Wednesday, Governor Patrick continued to lay out his administration’s agenda when he filed his budget with the House of Representatives.  An efficient system for the delivery of justice is always a top priority for the BBA and it is clear from his budget recommendations that Governor Patrick understands these issues.   But still, any funding cuts that affect the Court’s operations should be a matter of great concern to any lawyer who practices in Massachusetts.  The resources made available to our courts, and the constraints on those resources, have significant and direct impacts on those who turn to our courts for justice.

Here is a quick look at what the Governor recommends for MLAC and the Trial Court.

  • Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation: increased by $2.5 million to $12 million.  This is still $2.5 million short of the $14.5 million request from MLAC.
  • Trial Court: level-funded at the amount the Trial Court spent in FY12 without the appropriation for the Probation Department$429.7 million.  The Governor also proposed moving the Probation Department into the Executive Branch.

The true meaning of these numbers will come to light as we move through the budget process and the House and Senate have an opportunity to consider these recommendations.  This is only the beginning and the BBA will be closely monitoring how these line items are treated through the process.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Walk to the Hill: Then and Now

Just one week to go until Walk to the Hill. . . Next Thursday, January 26th, attorneys from across the Commonwealth will gather en mass for the 13th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.  The Boston Bar Association has been proud to support this lobbying event from its infancy.

Yes, some things have changed since the inaugural Walk to the Hill in 2000 – but the message remains the same: state funding for legal services – and the MLAC line item (0321-1600) – is essential to ensuring access to justice for all. This year, the funding request for the MLAC line item is $14.5 million.

Here are some facts…in 2000, Walk to the Hill was held in May and a handful of other local bar associations also joined the effort.  A mere 75 attorneys made the trek to the State House to urge lawmakers to adequately fund legal services.  General counsel from 14 companies signed on to a letter sent to then-Governor Paul Cellucci urging him to approve the budget with the $1 million bump the Legislature gave to MLAC intact.

Now, Walk to the Hill is scheduled for January to coincide with the start of the state budgeting season.  Last year, despite having been re-scheduled due to a snowstorm, more than 500 attorneys turned out for this event.  An additional 30 local and specialty bar associations from across the state co-sponsored it.  Our presence at Walk to the Hill helps to ensure that the MLAC line item is discussed throughout the budget process.

Funding for civil legal services has never been just a legal community issue.  The business community’s support for legal services is very important.  Today, the number of general counsel who sign on to the letter sent to the Legislature and Governor Patrick has grown from 14 to nearly 100 and includes the G.C.’s of Harvard University, John Hancock, EMC2, BJ’s Wholesale Club, National Grid and Sovereign Bank.

We measure our success not just by how much additional money is allocated for civil legal services or by how many attorneys show up for Walk to the Hill.  The efforts behind adequate funding for civil legal services don’t begin or end with Walk to the Hill but take place all year long.  We do a variety of things including meeting with Speaker DeLeo, Senate President Murray, Governor Patrick’s legal staff, and other members of the Legislature — trying to win support every step of the way.  The goal of these efforts is to educate and inform about the need for and the impact of legal services in these lawmakers’ own communities.  Adequately funding civil legal services is an investment in people and actually saves the Commonwealth money.  Not to mention the fact that there is no constituent service more important than civil legal aid.

 

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Good News, Bad News on State Budget

Today, the House of Representatives voted to advance a supplemental budget that includes an additional $1 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  This additional money will be used to offset deficiencies for the Fiscal Year that ends on June 30, 2012.  With exactly two weeks to go until the 13th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, this comes as a bright spot during a week when there hasn’t been a lot of good news around the state budget.

Last week’s Supreme Judicial Court decision raised more concerns about the state budget.  The SJC found that Massachusetts’ denial of legal immigrants’ access to a state-run insurance program was discrimination and a violation of their equal protection rights under the state Constitution.  In 2009, while trying to cut costs and save money, the Legislature voted to remove legal immigrants from Commonwealth Care, the state’s subsidized health care program.  Following this, Governor Patrick created the Commonwealth Care Bridge program to provide basic health care for the individuals who were no longer covered under the state funded program.

The SJC’s ruling will have a significant fiscal impact on this year’s state budget and next year’s state budget as well.  Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez said that the ruling could cost the state upwards of $150 million, meaning that the other pieces of the budget pie just got a little smaller.

For the last two budget cycles, MLAC has been level funded at $9.5 million.  This year they are requesting an additional $5 million, bringing their budget request up to $14.5 million.  At first, this might see like a steep increase in their funding request but, in reality, level funding for MLAC has actually been a functional shortfall.  Let’s not forget that MLAC actually brings money into the state.  State money spent on legal services is an investment that continually pays off.

One great example of this from FY10 is the Disability Benefits Project which received $1.2 million from MLAC.  The Disability Benefits Project helped secure SSI/SSDI benefits for Massachusetts residents and yielded $8.6 million in new federal revenue and $795,000 in direct reimbursement to the state.  Other cases that are handled by legal services attorneys include employment disputes, disability claims and evictions that, if not handled by an attorney, can end up costing the state in the end.

No line item exists in a vacuum.  But let’s not be short-sighted.  Adequate funding for MLAC is an investment we can’t afford to ignore.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Putting New Laws Into Practice

The BBA is where public policy, legal practice and the law intersect.  Our programs are designed to encourage dialogue among lawyers and policymakers.  We also provide a venue for provocative big-picture discussions and help members stay on top of new laws and changing issues.  Coming up are two programs that are closely tied to the BBA’s public policy process.  The programs are focused on the implications of the passage of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 and the Transgender Equal Rights Bill.  Both will greatly impact the way lawyers advise clients in the Commonwealth.

The BBA has worked on these issues for years – testifying at public hearings, engaging legislators in conversations, strategizing with other supporters and providing public comments.  In the case of alimony reform, the BBA was proud to be at the table when the new law was being drafted.  These bills were passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Patrick with much fanfare.

While we have always worked to move the ball forward, we realize that it’s one thing to be able to help shape legislation and another to be able to help implement and educate the public about the new law.  In the next few weeks the BBA will host programs featuring informative educational components of these new laws.  You can find more information on the programs using the links below:

CLE – Alimony Reform: Here and Now

What You Need to Know About the Transgender Equal Rights Law

Wednesday marked the beginning of the second year of the two-year session with the House and Senate participating in familiar formalities after a seven-week recess.   While the House and Senate sessions were not lengthy, they were steeped in pomp and circumstance.  The ceremonial start of the session included the formation of special committees and delegations in the House and Senate.  These groups were tasked with informing each branch and Governor Patrick that it’s time to resume work, proceed with the business of lawmaking and to work together in the best interest of the state.

What will the BBA be doing in the second half of the legislative session?   We’ll still be working to move our own bills towards the legislative finish line.  That means picking up on progress that was made during the first half of the session and working hard to ensure that our other issues are given their due consideration before legislative committees.  That requires meeting with the sponsors of our bills and fellow proponents, but also with any opponents.

There’s more to be done on criminal justice reform and it appears that January will present the House with an opportunity to consider and debate sentencing reform.  January will also kick-start the debate on the state budget with the Governor’s budget recommendations set to be released on January 25th.  With recent leadership changes, it’s now a question of building new allies and educating them about the importance of the things we care about.  Heading into the second-half of the session, the BBA is looking forward not only to more legislative victories, but also educating the public on their impacts on the practice of law.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

2012: A Glimpse at the Year Ahead

Issue Spot is looking ahead to 2012 and has put together a calendar of upcoming dates for the second half of the legislative session.  January marks the beginning of the second year in the two-year session.  The BBA will continue to work on advancing important bills that have already enjoyed some progress in the last year – whether that means they have had a public hearing or have been reported favorably from the committees to which they were originally assigned.  These bills include the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code, technical corrections to the Uniform Probate Code, a statute allowing post-conviction access to DNA testing, and the income tax “step-up.”

The Judiciary Committee – the committee that has jurisdiction over the majority of the BBA’s bills – still has five hearings left to schedule before March.  The upcoming hearings will include bills that fall into the categories of real estate, criminal procedure, torts, constitutional issues and the catch-all category of miscellaneous and late file bills.

In addition to keeping an eye on legislation in the next few months and working to move our legislative priorities over the finish line, the BBA will closely monitor the state budget for FY 2013.  Throughout the budget process, the BBA will continue to advocate for issues that impact the criminal justice system, including the Judiciary’s budget and legal services.

JANUARY

  • 1/4       Formal session resumes for the Massachusetts Legislature
  • 1/11       Judiciary Committee hearing – real estate bills
  • 1/25     The Governor must release his annual budget by the third Wednesday in January
  • 1/26     13th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid

 FEBRUARY

  • 2/7       Judiciary Committee hearing – subject matter to be determined

 MARCH

  • 3/1       Alimony Reform Act of 2011 goes into effect
  • 3/21     Joint Rule 10 Day; any bill that has been assigned to a committee by February 15, 2012 will either receive a favorable report, an adverse report or be placed into a study order
  • 3/31     Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code goes into effect

 APRIL

  • House budget debate takes place – usually the last full week of April

 MAY

  • Senate budget debate takes place – usually the last full week of May

 JUNE

  • Budget Conference Committee works on a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the budget and is sent to the Governor to sign or veto

 JULY

  • 7/1       Fiscal Year 2013 begins
  • 7/31     Formal session ends for the Massachusetts Legislature

 AUGUST

  • 8/1       Informal legislative session begins for the Massachusetts Legislature

 NOVEMBER

  • 11/6     Election Day

 DECEMBER

  • 12/31   187th General Court session ends

 

 

Judiciary Committee Year in Review

With the start of the 2nd half of the 187th Massachusetts Legislative Session set to begin on January 4th, the BBA is still advocating for several bills in the waning days of the informal session.  Back in January 2011, the BBA was the lead sponsor for 17 bills and a co-sponsor of a handful of other bills. Just about all of our bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Overall, 5,388 bills were filed at the beginning of this session. Roughly 900 of those bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee.  This constitutes over 15% of all bills filed in the Legislature and gives the Judiciary Committee the distinction of having the highest volume of non-budgetary legislation referred to any committee.  To put this in perspective, the Public Service Committee has the next biggest number of bills at just over 600.  Not surprisingly, issues concerning the state courts, criminal procedure and penalties, torts, privacy, real estate, probate and judicial management end up in Judiciary.

Admittedly, not all of the 900 bills are unique.  Some of the bills are the same piece of legislation just filed separately in each branch.  For instance, the BBA often tries to find both a House and Senate sponsor of its bills especially if the issue at hand is one that may require leadership in both branches.

Since public hearings began in March, the Judiciary Committee has held eleven hearings.  These take place in small hearing rooms or in the larger Gardner Auditorium and are always well attended.  The Judiciary Committee hearings last for hours, often late into the night.  These hearings are packed with lawmakers and members of the public. The BBA has experienced this firsthand.  We patiently waited several hours for our turn to testify in Gardner Auditorium twice this year and in the smaller hearing rooms several other times this session.

Here are just some examples of bills for which the BBA has advocated this session and which already received a favorable report from the Judiciary Committee:

  • Alimony reform was released from the committee and signed into law on September 26th and will become effective on March 1, 2012.
  • Transgender civil rights will go into effect in the Commonwealth on July 1, 2012.
  • A major court reform bill that included a provision to keep the Probation Department in the Judicial Branch as well as providing for the hiring of a professionally trained, non-judicial court administrator was signed by the Governor on August 4th and will become law on July 1, 2012.

Now that those three bills have already been signed into law, the Judiciary Committee can begin focusing on other equally important bills.

Some of the other bills that have been released from the Judiciary Committee thus far but that have not made their way to the Governor’s desk just yet include the BBA’s access to DNA bill, the Uniform Trust Code and the corrections to the MUPC.  Elsewhere in the Legislature, budget requests are being reviewed and budget priorities are beginning to take shape.  When formal session resumes in a few weeks, there will be more public hearings, meetings with lawmakers and other opportunities to advance our agenda.

-Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Basic Primer on the Budget Process

It’s budget prep time in Massachusetts, meaning that agencies and groups across the state are crunching numbers.  Any entity that gets state funding is assessing its current and future needs — with the goal of determining what its annual request to the Legislature will be for fiscal year 2013.  Earlier this week, the annual consensus revenue hearing was held before the House and Senate Ways & Means Committees.  This hearing marked the beginning of the process by which the Governor’s administration, the House and the Senate will ultimately settle on a final revenue estimate.  That agreed upon revenue estimate will lay the groundwork for building the 2013 budgets submitted by the Governor, the House and the Senate.

There’s a lot of forecasting that goes into determining what this consensus revenue number will be, including projected tax collection figures.  These are primarily drawn from the sales tax, the income tax and the capital gains tax.  Things like national trends and even what is going on globally will ultimately affect the economy here in Massachusetts.

Governor Patrick’s budget will come out in mid-January, followed by the House’s budget in April and the Senate’s budget in May.  The differences in the various budgets must be reconciled by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, 2012.

So how does the BBA fit into the state budget process?  Annually, the BBA advocates for adequate funding on behalf of civil legal services, our state courts, district attorneys and CPCS.  Recently, because of the economic pressures on the state budget, the budget campaign has become a year-round effort. Our advocacy has already begun.  We’ve joined forces with Greater Boston Legal Services and visited legislators to discuss funding for legal aid.  We’ll continue to push these and other issues later when we meet this week with the Governor’s legal counsel and next week with Speaker DeLeo.

But we don’t just sit around, waiting to see what the state budget allocates for legal services.  We do much more.  Through our charitable affiliate, the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF), we raise money to support legal aid.  Last year, the BBF made grants totaling $1.1 million to 25 Massachusetts community organizations providing a wide variety of core legal services – from domestic violence and immigration to housing and homelessness.  Remarkably, in spite of the economy, this $1.1 million was almost a $50,000 increase in core legal services grants, compared with FY10.

The BBA is also a major recruiter for the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), a pro bono initiative with an outstanding reputation.  In just the last few months the BBA held two trainings for VLP.  One was a Chapter 7 bankruptcy pro bono training, which drew over 100 lawyers.  The other training prepared lawyers to volunteer for one of our most successful pro bono programs, Housing Court Lawyer for the Day Program, which has flourished over the past twelve years.  The BBA has recruited scores of volunteers from law firms, solo practices and in-house corporate legal departments to provide assistance to unrepresented tenants and landlords on summary process day at the Housing Court.

But that’s not all we do to bridge the supply and demand gap for legal aid to the poor.  We co-sponsor and help recruit attendees for an important advocacy event, the annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.  Walk to the Hill, now in its 13th year, will take place on January 26th at 11 am at the State House.  It’s particularly timely, since it occurs the day after the Governor’s budget is expected to be released.

We do what we can to help in a variety of ways and we do it all year long.  But none of the things we do in this area can substitute for the work that veteran legal services lawyers provide.  We recognize that our role is to help secure the funding necessary to allow those attorneys to focus on the immediate needs of their clients.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Behind Our Public Policy Focus

The Massachusetts Legislature handles thousands of bills every session, and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts frequently solicits amicus briefs.  In addition there are countless opportunities for comments on rule making and rules changes at the state and federal level.  Making a meaningful impact demands that we focus our public policy efforts.

We trace our roots back to the John Adams who defended the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre, and have tried to remain true to those roots.  Hence we focus our public policy efforts on issues directly relating to access to justice, the administration of justice, the practice of law, and improving the quality of laws in the Commonwealth.

Admittedly, we often field requests to lend the prestige of the Boston Bar Association to groups dealing with worthy issues unrelated to our mission. While providing such an “endorsement” might win us a pat on the back from people we admire or even make us feel good about ourselves, the reality is that such activities can dilute our message and squander our political capital.

We want to be known as the bar association that steps forward to advocate for adequate funding for legal aid, our State Courts, District Attorneys’ Offices, and indigent criminal defense services.  We also want to be known as the bar association that cares about drafting legislation that will work the way it was intended.  So it is that even after the formal session has ended, we continue to advocate zealously for technical changes to the soon-to-be enacted Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code.

We have a volunteer talent pool as wide as it is deep, and are uniquely positioned to lend our expertise on issues where we as lawyers can make a unique contribution based on our skill sets and experience.  But we want to leverage this talent wisely in ways that can provide the greatest value.

Government Relations Department
Boston Bar Association

Legislators Who Understand Need for Legal Aid

For many years the BBA has advocated alongside Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) for the Massachusetts Legal Aid Corporation line item, which is the state funding source for civil legal aid to poor people.  In meetings at the State House we are typically joined by a client of GBLS who is also a constituent of the particular lawmaker with whom we are meeting.  This puts a human face on the funding request.  More important, the constituents’ personal stories provide real life illustrations of the difference that legal services attorneys make on the lives of people facing desperate legal problems.

Let me tell you about once such meeting last year.  It was the first time we had met with Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, whose district is in Southeast Massachusetts (Dighton, Somerset, Swansea and Taunton).  We brought along a low-income grandmother whose story would be familiar to any legal services lawyer trying to secure visitation rights to a grandchild whose parent is out of the picture.

We spoke with Rep. Haddad for over an hour.  We rattled off numbers and talked about the decline in IOLTA funds, the number of layoffs statewide in legal services, how legal services actually brings money into the state, and how the private bar does its part too by volunteering pro bono hours and raising private money for legal services.  But it was the real life story of the constituent that generated the greatest impact.

Rep. Haddad said she was glad we came to talk with her about this important issue.  Her sincerity was confirmed only a few days later when we ran into her in the reception area of Speaker DeLeo’s office.  She told us she was there for the same reason: to discuss legal services funding with the Speaker.

Tonight we get the opportunity to thank Rep. Haddad, along with Chairman Stephen M. Brewer (Senate Ways & Means), Chairwoman Cynthia Stone Creem (Joint Judiciary Committee), Chairman Brian S. Dempsey (House Ways & Means Committee), and Steven A. Tolman (President of the AFL-CIO and former Senator).

Happily, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, our partners in the Equal Justice Coalition, will be joining us for a recognition reception.  With the Legislature in informal session until January, this is a great opportunity to honor some of the legislative leaders who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to civil legal aid in 2011.

The State House has already begun to prepare for the FY13 budget cycle.  We hope at this time next year we will be in a similar position: thanking those who made MLAC’s $14.5 million for FY13 request a reality.

-Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Mid-Session Legislative Update

The Legislature’s winter recess began last Wednesday evening – but not before some important pieces of legislation passed in both the House and Senate.  The reason for the winter recess?  Legislative rules require the House and Senate to break from formal session during non-election years as a way of preventing action on major bills so close to the holidays, a time during which the public may not be as attentive.  If two-thirds of members agree, the Legislature can return to session during their scheduled break.  This recess gives legislators time to spend in their districts and affords others a chance to do additional lobbying on bills expected to move next year.  Here’s a quick update on the progress of transgender civil rights, sentencing reform and important trusts and estates bills that the BBA is working on…

A victory for transgender rights!  When the House and Senate approved a bill to include gender identity and expression in the Commonwealth’s nondiscrimination statute and existing hate crime laws, Massachusetts joined 15 other states – along with Washington, D.C. – that already provide these protections for transgender people.  Governor Patrick, who supports the legislation, is expected to sign the bill soon.   While the final version of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill does not include protections within public accommodations, this is a historic and important victory for transgender equality in Massachusetts.

We have more work to do on sentencing reform. We had hoped that a bill denying parole for repeat violent offenders would also eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences for non-violent offenders. While we were pleased to see some elements of sentencing reform in the Senate version of the bill, we were disappointed that the House version only contained parole denial for repeat offenders.  We’re still hoping that a conference committee will be able to restore the Senate reforms relative to reduced mandatory minimum drug sentences.

Having just passed the midpoint of the 2011-2012 session, legislative rules now require that bills pending at the end of the first annual session carry over into the second annual session.  But let’s not forget that the portion of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code dealing with estates goes into effect on January 2, 2012. Two important housekeeping proposals, the MUPC technical corrections and the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code, are still pending and we cannot wait until the beginning of the next session to act.   A delay in passing these bills will put greater strain on an already overburdened Probate & Family Court.

While the House and Senate will continue to meet over the next few weeks in informal sessions, the second leg of the 2011-2012 begins in January and will continue until through July.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association