The budget process is finally nearing completion with last Friday’s release of the Conference Committee’s $40.3 Billion Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18) budget, H3800, which was followed by quick passage in both houses that same day. If you need a refresher as to how we got here, be sure to check out past posts on our advocacy on the initial Governor’s budget, the House’s Ways and Means Committee and final budgets, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee and final budgets. The Conference Committee budget is now on the Governor’s desk, where he has ten days to either sign it as is, sign it with some line-item vetoes and amendments, or veto it.
Worth noting at the top — as the Legislature was piecing together its FY18 budget, it was receiving increasingly gloomy news about FY17 revenues – to the point that the Conference Committee was forced to revise downward its spending plans for next year in the face of a developing budget gap. In the end, the budget delivered by the six conferees slashed about $700 million from the budgets passed only weeks earlier by each house. The general rule was that individual line-items were level-funded or even cut, from last year’s appropriations.
The Conference Committee budget is now on the Governor’s desk, where he has ten days to either sign it as is, sign it with some line-item vetoes and amendments, or veto it. Here’s a round-up of how our budget priorities fared in the Conference Committee:
Statewide Expansion of the Housing Court
We are happy to report great news for statewide expansion of the Housing Court, which the BBA has long supported as a key access to justice cause. If you’ll recall, for the second year in a row, the Governor included funding and authorization for the expansion in his initial budget, the House did not allocate funds or authorizing language, and the Senate included $1 million appropriation and authorizing language. This year, the measure survived the Conference Committee process and both the authorizing language and appropriation of $1 million were included in their final budget that was sent to the Governor. So a statewide Housing Court is only one step away from finally becoming a reality.
Currently, nearly one-third of Massachusetts residents must take their landlord/tenant matters to District Court – as do municipalities in those regions that are seeking to enforce health and sanitary codes. There they wait in line behind others bringing a wide variety of cases, they appear before judges who see such cases only occasionally, and they do not have access to housing specialists trained to successfully resolve these cases and avoid the need – and expense – of litigating in open court. In addition, Housing Court offers programs like the Tenancy Preservation Program – a unique intervention that enables trained counselors to assist with services in cases involving persons with disabilities, ultimately helping to prevent homelessness. These programs help make Housing Court a model of efficiency, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department.
As mentioned, this year the Conference Committee included the $1 million appropriation (line-item 0336 – 0003) as well as the authorizing language (outside sections 78-82), so if the Governor continues his leadership on this issue and includes the language and funding, this may finally be the year that all of the residents of the Commonwealth will finally have access to the many benefits the Housing Court offers.
The expansion of the Housing Court is just one piece of the Trial Court appropriation, which is made up of about 15 different line-items. Within the context of the gloomy revenue news outlined above, the Conference Committee budget did reduce overall Trial Court funding, but nevertheless provided for a $13.7 million increase over last year’s appropriation – presumably in recognition of the fact that the court system still remains underfunded, despite a more than $8 million increase in FY17 – for a total of $652.6 million in FY18.
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. As a result of this work, they have been able to continue the efficient and effective operation of the courts even with a 19% reduction in staffing since FY02. Despite these transformational efforts, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years. For example, the installations of new technologies that will ultimately save on staffing and overhead costs nevertheless require large up-front investments. In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of upgrades in the area of security systems. These upgrades 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.
The Trial Court, made up of seven different departments, handles nearly all of the cases in the Commonwealth and functions as the main point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who have legal issues they need resolved. As such, adequate funding is critical for the Commonwealth, and we hope the Governor will include the full appropriation in H3800 for all of the Trial Court line-items.
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)
As you know, MLAC is the largest funder of civil legal aid in the Commonwealth. The Governor’s budget allocated for a 1% increase in MLAC funding, or $18,180,000. The House Budget, with the help of an amendment filed by Representative Ruth Balser, included a $20 million appropriation, and the Senate budget, with the help of an amendment filed by Senators Cynthia Creem and William Brownsberger, also included a $20 million appropriation for MLAC.
Unfortunately, however, the Conference Committee felt compelled, in light of the gravity of the revenue shortfall, to move the MLAC line-item (0321 – 1600) back down to $18 million, representing level-funding from FY17.
We’ve outlined the importance of MLAC funding, again and again, as legal aid touches so many of the biggest social problems facing the Commonwealth, including foreclosures and emergency shelter, immigration, the opioid crisis, and domestic violence. In addition, the recent BBA Report, Investing in Justice, revealed just how many Massachusetts residents needed this aid and how many were turned away due to lack of resources. Each year, MLAC-funded programs are forced to turn way around 64% of qualified clients, or about 57,000 individuals. Plus, with legal aid funding at the federal level in peril, the demand for state-funded legal services may increase even more in the near future.
In addition to outlining the great need for legal aid funding, the report also established that investment in legal aid actually pays for itself, and more, by saving the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care. Indeed, according to MLAC’s most recent report on the economic benefits of legal aid, legal assistance for low-income residents resulted in over $49 million of total income and savings for the Commonwealth in FY16 alone. Specifically, the report shows that legal aid led to $12.1 million in cost savings on social services for the state, $15.9 million in federal revenue entering the Commonwealth, and $21.2 million in benefits for residents.
Similar to the Trial Court, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) also received some cuts to their budget line-items in the Conference Committee budget.
CPCS 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 compensation paid to private assigned counsel, as well as 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 recent Commission to Study Compensation of Assistant District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. The BBA supports the Commission’s recommendation that minimum salaries for these attorneys be increased, over time, to match the corresponding minimums for executive branch attorneys, and the appropriations outlined above would be a significant and beneficial step in that direction.
Given the importance of the services provided by CPCS, we hope the Governor will continue his recognition of the importance of providing adequate funding for CPCS and uphold the full H3800 appropriations of $58,896,644 for staff and operations (line item 0321-1500); $98,906,090 for private counsel compensation (line item 0321-1510), and $14,951,982 for indigent court costs (line-item 0321-1520).
On the heels of our letter to the Conference Committee, we sent a letter to the Governor this week urging him to include the Conference Committee appropriation in the above line-items. Watch this space for one last update when the Governor signs the official final budget for FY18 … pending any potential legislative overrides, of course, should he veto or cut any of these.
We also want to thank you for all the phone calls, letters, and conversations you’ve had with your legislators on behalf of such important issues like increasing civil legal aid funding and expanding the Housing Court. If you’re reading this before the Governor has acted, please contact his office to express your support for the items outlined above.
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association