The Boston Bar Association is ever mindful of the difficult fiscal circumstances facing the Commonwealth and the need to balance competing interests and make difficult choices. As such, we are appreciative of the House’s thoughtful and deliberative budget process – under the leadership of Ways & Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey – and the careful consideration of needs.
The funding increase of $1M for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, building on the House’s $2M increase last year, shows that Chairman Dempsey and Speaker Robert DeLeo understand the key finding of our Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts: that expanding support for legal aid saves the state money by reducing the need for spending on items such as emergency medical care, foster care, and shelter. In keeping with the BBA Task Force’s recommendation of a $30 million increase over three years, we will work with the many legislative supporters of civil legal aid to add $9 million to this line-item through a floor amendment.
In addition, we are pleased that the House budget includes funding for continued growth in the successful Specialty Court program, which provides for intensive treatment tailored to the specific concerns of individuals with substance-abuse and/or mental-health problems, as well as military veterans and the homeless. The BBA is a long-time advocate for these programs, and we believe that their essential work warrants these public resources.
However, the BBA is concerned that the Governor’s budget language authorizing and funding a statewide expansion of the Housing Court was not included. We believe – as do many others, including SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants – that it is unfair that one-third of Massachusetts residents do not have access to this dedicated court, which has proven itself as a model of both expertise and efficiency.
Funding for the Trial Court, although it increases the current level, is still insufficient to maintain the high quality of justice in courts throughout Massachusetts. The proposed funding level would make it difficult to maintain court operations, just at a time when the Trial Court is emerging from devastating budget cuts during the Great Recession. Furthermore, it would hinder the court’s ability to fully implement the modernization plan that it has been engaged in for several years, which is already bearing fruit.
We look forward to House budget debate in two weeks, and we will continue to advocate and make the case in support of these BBA priorities.