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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