House 1 – the governor’s budget proposal – has been released and the budget process has officially begun. Governor Patrick’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposal was filed yesterday, January 23rd with the House of Representatives. Governor Patrick has said that his budget focuses on investment in education, innovation and infrastructure. Along with these investments, the governor proposes a reduction of the state sales tax rate and various tax increases.
The budget plays an integral role in how the entire justice system works –the amount of funding the justice system receives directly affects our state courts, our civil legal aid providers, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, and the District Attorneys’ Offices. As we’ve always said, adequate funding of the entire justice system in Massachusetts is essential to ensure equal and timely access to justice.
Here is a quick review of what Governor Patrick proposed for the state judiciary and civil legal services. . .
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)
We are so pleased that Governor Patrick appreciates the importance of civil legal aid for poor people and recommended $15.5 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation for Fiscal Year 2014. While this is a 28% increase over its FY13 appropriation of $12 million, this victory for civil legal services is so important because revenue from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) continues to be so low. IOLTA, which had historically been the largest source of funding for civil legal aid, has dropped by 78% since 2008. Last year IOLTA revenue was $7.4 million and the total for this year is expected to be even lower.
The Massachusetts Trial Court
The Trial Court’s maintenance request for Fiscal Year 2014 is $589 million. A maintenance budget is the cost of maintaining current services in the next fiscal year. This takes into consideration adjustments for costs associated with inflation, caseload changes, and certain other factors. Governor Patrick’s budget includes $577.5 million for the Trial Court for Fiscal Year 2014. While this number is about $12 million less than requested, it represents a $16.5 million increase over the $561 million the Trial Court ultimately received in Fiscal Year 2013.
What these numbers really mean for the Trial Court is still to be determined. We will proceed with caution as we work to convince the Legislature that the Trial Court needs more funding in order to deliver justice to all the people that access our courts.
Governor Patrick’s budget proposal also creates a commission to study court re-alignment. The commission will include a representative of the BBA. This commission’s purpose will be to produce an independent, non-partisan assessment on the closure or re-alignment of courts.
The House Ways and Means Committee will now review Governor Patrick’s budget and then develop its own recommendations by April. Stay tuned for updates as the process unfolds.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association