This week the House Ways and Means Committee released its FY2016 budget proposal. The $38 billion budget made targeted new investments in early education, substance abuse prevention, and behavioral health. We were pleased to see some increases in judiciary line items, and applaud the House Ways and Means Committee for all their hard work, which was especially challenging this year as they faced a $1.8 billion shortfall. Even so, we have some concerns about whether the judiciary received enough to allow it to continue to deliver on its promise of “justice with dignity and speed.” The Trial Court, legal services, and state attorneys will all face challenges if the budget is adopted in this form.
Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) (Line Item 0321-1600)
As you likely know, the BBA spent the last 24 months studying and gathering data on civil legal aid, and ultimately releasing one the most comprehensive reports in the nation on the issue, including analyses demonstrating concrete returns to the state on investments in this area. For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of eviction and foreclosure cases, the state can save $2.69. For every $1 spent on legal aid in the area of domestic violence, there is a $2 return, with $1 going to the state and $1 to the federal government in medical care savings. Finally, for every $1 spent on legal aid to provide federal benefits, the state will gain $5 in economic benefits to its citizens. And this is only in the three practice areas we studied.
Overall, roughly 64% of people seeking legal aid, who qualify financially at 125% of the federal poverty level, are turned away due to lack of resources. That doesn’t take into account those individuals who wait for hours on the phone with legal aid agencies and eventually give up because there simply is not enough staff to handle intakes, a number that may be as high as 50%.
Investing in Justice asks for $30 million from the Legislature in additional funding for legal services, spread out over three years. That translates to $25 million in total funding this year, $35 million next, and $45 million in FY2018 funding. We are confident that these funding levels would make a significant impact and significantly increase access to justice for those in need, while at the same time actually saving the state money.
Governor Charlie Baker’s budget proposal, which was released last month, essentially level-funded MLAC from last year, but the House Ways and Means budget gave it a $2 million increase.
Here is the breakdown:
|House Ways & Means Budget||$13,000,000||$17,000,000|
|Final Budget Appropriation||$15,000,000*|
* before mid-year cut of 1.79%
Representative Balser is filing an amendment to increase the House appropriation by an additional $5 million, bringing total additional MLAC funding to $7 million and increasing the MLAC line item to $22 million. We hope that you will contact your state Representative as soon as possible asking him or her to co-sponsor Rep. Balser’s amendment.
The Trial Court budget includes 15 different line items funding the judges, staffs, and operation of all of its departments. The Trial Court requested a maintenance budget of $642.6 million. This is the amount it would take to continue operations as normal. It also provided the legislature with 16 budget modules, essentially enhancement initiatives and projects it could choose to fund in order to update and innovate the court system. Some examples include funding to create more specialty courts, expand Housing Court statewide, and provide additional materials to self-represented litigants.
The Governor’s budget proposal was disappointingly low, prompting a swift response from the Courts explaining that such funding levels would result in the devastating elimination of 550 positions, roughly an 8.4% cut to a court staff which is already pushed to its limits. Thankfully, the House Ways and Means budget provides significantly more funding – a little over $620 million – and the Trial Court will continue to work closely with the Legislature to sustain its current operations and avoid layoffs.
This is how the funding breaks down:
|Request||$615,000,000 + Modules||$642,600,000 + Modules|
|House Ways & Means Budget||$609,000,000||$620,533,116|
|Final Budget Appropriation||$612,000,000*|
* before mid-year cut of 1.79%
Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) (Line Items: 0320-0003, 0320-0010, 0321-0001, 0321-0100)
The state’s highest court, comprised of four line items, took one of the biggest relative hits in the budget, as its House Ways and Means allotment was nearly 5% below its maintenance request. As a result, the SJC may also have to face employee layoffs unless it can secure additional funding.
(FY15 Final: $8,183,990)
|House Ways & Means Budget||$11,685,314||$12,020,560|
Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) (Line Items: 0321-1500, 0321-1504, 0321-1510, 0321-1518)
CPCS is comprised of four line items that include its own attorneys as well as compensation for private counselors (bar advocates). It was the subject of a recent MBA Task Force report, making a convincing case that public defenders, bar advocates, and assistant district attorneys, merit higher salaries, and a state commission unanimously agreed with that proposition [link to Issue Spot on this]. The Globe has also run a number of articles on the issue of underpaid attorneys in these positions (see here and here).
It is important to note when understanding CPCS’s line item that the annual budget has historically underfundedCPCS, the theory being that since CPCS cannot predict with exact certainty how many cases it will have to serve, it is provided with an initial appropriation that is supplemented as the fiscal year progresses and its expenses become clearer. The Legislature and Governor have consistently honored and funded these requests. Neither the Governor nor the House Ways and Means budget propose any changes to the current CPCS service delivery system.
Here is the CPCS budget breadkdown:
|House Ways & Means Budget||$168,000,000||$170,470,051|
|Final Budget Appropriation||$168,000,000*|
* before supplemental budget funding
In all, we are still at the beginning of a long budget process. The next step will be amendments in the House and a floor debate before a House budget is finalized. The process repeats in the Senate next month – Ways and Means budget, amendments, and debate. Finally, a Conference Committee reviews the House and Senate budgets to pick a single amount for each line item.
The Governor then has 10 days to review the budget. He can approve or veto the entire budget, veto or reduce specific line items, veto outside sections, or submit changes as an amendment for legislative consideration. Finally the Legislature has the chance to override any Governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in each branch. We will do our best to keep you updated throughout the budget process.
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association