Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

A Call to Action on the Budget

April 21, 2016

Yesterday we hope you received our budget alert – a call to action advocating on behalf of funding for civil legal aid, the Trial Court, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  With budget debate in the House forthcoming next week, now is the time to contact your Representative on these issues.  Here are some quick notes for you to share with them (Don’t know who to call?  Look up your Representative here.):

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)
• Request: $27,000,000
• Governor’s Budget: $17,170,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $18,000,000

Representative Ruth Balser has filed amendment #847 asking for an additional $9 million.  If adopted, it would bring the total MLAC line item to $27,000,000.  The amendment is currently co-sponsored by more than 70 Representatives, and the list keeps growing.  If you see your Representative on that list, call them to express your thanks and ask them to continue pushing for the amendment.  If you don’t see their name on that list, click here to ask them to sign on.

Trial Court
• Request: $654,374,856 + Modules
• Governor’s Budget: $638,606,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)

As you can see above, the Trial Court is being funded at far below its maintenance amount.  Amendment #474, filed by Representative John Fernandes, seeks an additional $17 million.  If the Trial Court does not receive this funding, it will likely have to lay off around 300 individuals, resulting in decreased service at courthouses already stretched thin.

The courts have recently made great strides toward modernizing and enhancing efficiencies under the new management structure put in place by the Legislature, as evinced by their request for maintenance funding of only 6,520 staff positions, a 17% reduction in staffing levels since FY02.  Furthermore, in the last eight years, while the state budget has increased 43.3% overall, funding for the Trial Court, a major piece of the third co-equal branch of government, has increased by only 7.9%.  More funding is essential to maintaining the high quality of justice to which we in Massachusetts are accustomed.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion
• Request: $2,400,000
• Governor’s Budget: $1,000,000
• House Ways and Means Budget: $0

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court is a special court session conducted by experienced and expert judges.  They operate out of already existing court houses, providing landlords and tenants with a special legal forum to resolve disputes, as well as code enforcement, mortgage fraud, and numerous complex housing matters.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be roughly $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and start phasing it in to the areas not currently covered.  Unfortunately, the House Ways and Means Budget did not, potentially stifling this much-needed measure.  As a result, Representative Chris Walsh has filed amendments #1180 (to fund with $1,200,000) and #1176 (to include enacting language) creating Housing Court.

Housing Court covers 80% of the state geographically – but only about two-thirds of the population.  Housing Court is the only forum in the Commonwealth set up to handle code enforcement, evictions, and other housing issues on a daily basis.  Its judges have the expertise to analyze the federal, state, local laws and codes on housing.  Housing Court is also the only forum to use Housing Specialists, individuals who mediate cases, saving potential litigants time and money they would otherwise spend to have their case heard in court.  Over half of Housing Court cases were resolved in this way last year.  Specialists also perform on-site reviews of property to resolve issues concerning housing conditions.  In part because of these services, Housing Court is extremely efficient, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association