Monthly Archives: January 2012

Good News from the Governor

It’s been a busy week for Governor Patrick.  First, the Governor delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address on Monday.   He praised the House and Senate for the great work they did last year on some difficult issues including state pension reform, municipal health benefits, schools and transportation.  More importantly, the Governor outlined his top three priorities for this year –health care containment reform, a streamlined community college system and sentencing reform.

Talking about his ambitious agenda for the year, the Governor asked the Legislature to send him a balanced sentencing bill that includes real reforms for both the Habitual Offender law and mandatory minimum sentencing reforms.  Referencing overcrowded prisons and the high cost of housing inmates, he insisted that the Legislature send him a bill that is tough on violent criminals while providing greater opportunities for rehabilitation of non-violent drug offenders.  The Governor emphasized that a strong and smart crime bill is good for public safety and good for Massachusetts.  The BBA couldn’t agree more.

In November, the Senate passed a more comprehensive crime bill that didn’t repeal but reduced mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.  At the time the House of Representatives only advanced the Habitual Offender law.  But now the House is reviewing those sentencing reforms and is expected to advance their own version this session.

The BBA continues to advocate for improvements to the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, particularly with regard to sentencing and prisoner re-entry.  Ahead of the Senate’s vote on their crime bill, BBA President Lisa Goodheart issued a statement arguing that sentencing reforms are fiscally responsible and enhance public safety.  While encouraged by Governor Patrick’s recent statements on these issues, we are eager to see what the House will include in its sentencing reform bill.

On Wednesday, Governor Patrick continued to lay out his administration’s agenda when he filed his budget with the House of Representatives.  An efficient system for the delivery of justice is always a top priority for the BBA and it is clear from his budget recommendations that Governor Patrick understands these issues.   But still, any funding cuts that affect the Court’s operations should be a matter of great concern to any lawyer who practices in Massachusetts.  The resources made available to our courts, and the constraints on those resources, have significant and direct impacts on those who turn to our courts for justice.

Here is a quick look at what the Governor recommends for MLAC and the Trial Court.

  • Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation: increased by $2.5 million to $12 million.  This is still $2.5 million short of the $14.5 million request from MLAC.
  • Trial Court: level-funded at the amount the Trial Court spent in FY12 without the appropriation for the Probation Department$429.7 million.  The Governor also proposed moving the Probation Department into the Executive Branch.

The true meaning of these numbers will come to light as we move through the budget process and the House and Senate have an opportunity to consider these recommendations.  This is only the beginning and the BBA will be closely monitoring how these line items are treated through the process.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Walk to the Hill: Then and Now

Just one week to go until Walk to the Hill. . . Next Thursday, January 26th, attorneys from across the Commonwealth will gather en mass for the 13th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.  The Boston Bar Association has been proud to support this lobbying event from its infancy.

Yes, some things have changed since the inaugural Walk to the Hill in 2000 – but the message remains the same: state funding for legal services – and the MLAC line item (0321-1600) – is essential to ensuring access to justice for all. This year, the funding request for the MLAC line item is $14.5 million.

Here are some facts…in 2000, Walk to the Hill was held in May and a handful of other local bar associations also joined the effort.  A mere 75 attorneys made the trek to the State House to urge lawmakers to adequately fund legal services.  General counsel from 14 companies signed on to a letter sent to then-Governor Paul Cellucci urging him to approve the budget with the $1 million bump the Legislature gave to MLAC intact.

Now, Walk to the Hill is scheduled for January to coincide with the start of the state budgeting season.  Last year, despite having been re-scheduled due to a snowstorm, more than 500 attorneys turned out for this event.  An additional 30 local and specialty bar associations from across the state co-sponsored it.  Our presence at Walk to the Hill helps to ensure that the MLAC line item is discussed throughout the budget process.

Funding for civil legal services has never been just a legal community issue.  The business community’s support for legal services is very important.  Today, the number of general counsel who sign on to the letter sent to the Legislature and Governor Patrick has grown from 14 to nearly 100 and includes the G.C.’s of Harvard University, John Hancock, EMC2, BJ’s Wholesale Club, National Grid and Sovereign Bank.

We measure our success not just by how much additional money is allocated for civil legal services or by how many attorneys show up for Walk to the Hill.  The efforts behind adequate funding for civil legal services don’t begin or end with Walk to the Hill but take place all year long.  We do a variety of things including meeting with Speaker DeLeo, Senate President Murray, Governor Patrick’s legal staff, and other members of the Legislature — trying to win support every step of the way.  The goal of these efforts is to educate and inform about the need for and the impact of legal services in these lawmakers’ own communities.  Adequately funding civil legal services is an investment in people and actually saves the Commonwealth money.  Not to mention the fact that there is no constituent service more important than civil legal aid.

 

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Good News, Bad News on State Budget

Today, the House of Representatives voted to advance a supplemental budget that includes an additional $1 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  This additional money will be used to offset deficiencies for the Fiscal Year that ends on June 30, 2012.  With exactly two weeks to go until the 13th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid, this comes as a bright spot during a week when there hasn’t been a lot of good news around the state budget.

Last week’s Supreme Judicial Court decision raised more concerns about the state budget.  The SJC found that Massachusetts’ denial of legal immigrants’ access to a state-run insurance program was discrimination and a violation of their equal protection rights under the state Constitution.  In 2009, while trying to cut costs and save money, the Legislature voted to remove legal immigrants from Commonwealth Care, the state’s subsidized health care program.  Following this, Governor Patrick created the Commonwealth Care Bridge program to provide basic health care for the individuals who were no longer covered under the state funded program.

The SJC’s ruling will have a significant fiscal impact on this year’s state budget and next year’s state budget as well.  Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez said that the ruling could cost the state upwards of $150 million, meaning that the other pieces of the budget pie just got a little smaller.

For the last two budget cycles, MLAC has been level funded at $9.5 million.  This year they are requesting an additional $5 million, bringing their budget request up to $14.5 million.  At first, this might see like a steep increase in their funding request but, in reality, level funding for MLAC has actually been a functional shortfall.  Let’s not forget that MLAC actually brings money into the state.  State money spent on legal services is an investment that continually pays off.

One great example of this from FY10 is the Disability Benefits Project which received $1.2 million from MLAC.  The Disability Benefits Project helped secure SSI/SSDI benefits for Massachusetts residents and yielded $8.6 million in new federal revenue and $795,000 in direct reimbursement to the state.  Other cases that are handled by legal services attorneys include employment disputes, disability claims and evictions that, if not handled by an attorney, can end up costing the state in the end.

No line item exists in a vacuum.  But let’s not be short-sighted.  Adequate funding for MLAC is an investment we can’t afford to ignore.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Putting New Laws Into Practice

The BBA is where public policy, legal practice and the law intersect.  Our programs are designed to encourage dialogue among lawyers and policymakers.  We also provide a venue for provocative big-picture discussions and help members stay on top of new laws and changing issues.  Coming up are two programs that are closely tied to the BBA’s public policy process.  The programs are focused on the implications of the passage of the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 and the Transgender Equal Rights Bill.  Both will greatly impact the way lawyers advise clients in the Commonwealth.

The BBA has worked on these issues for years – testifying at public hearings, engaging legislators in conversations, strategizing with other supporters and providing public comments.  In the case of alimony reform, the BBA was proud to be at the table when the new law was being drafted.  These bills were passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Patrick with much fanfare.

While we have always worked to move the ball forward, we realize that it’s one thing to be able to help shape legislation and another to be able to help implement and educate the public about the new law.  In the next few weeks the BBA will host programs featuring informative educational components of these new laws.  You can find more information on the programs using the links below:

CLE – Alimony Reform: Here and Now

What You Need to Know About the Transgender Equal Rights Law

Wednesday marked the beginning of the second year of the two-year session with the House and Senate participating in familiar formalities after a seven-week recess.   While the House and Senate sessions were not lengthy, they were steeped in pomp and circumstance.  The ceremonial start of the session included the formation of special committees and delegations in the House and Senate.  These groups were tasked with informing each branch and Governor Patrick that it’s time to resume work, proceed with the business of lawmaking and to work together in the best interest of the state.

What will the BBA be doing in the second half of the legislative session?   We’ll still be working to move our own bills towards the legislative finish line.  That means picking up on progress that was made during the first half of the session and working hard to ensure that our other issues are given their due consideration before legislative committees.  That requires meeting with the sponsors of our bills and fellow proponents, but also with any opponents.

There’s more to be done on criminal justice reform and it appears that January will present the House with an opportunity to consider and debate sentencing reform.  January will also kick-start the debate on the state budget with the Governor’s budget recommendations set to be released on January 25th.  With recent leadership changes, it’s now a question of building new allies and educating them about the importance of the things we care about.  Heading into the second-half of the session, the BBA is looking forward not only to more legislative victories, but also educating the public on their impacts on the practice of law.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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