Tag Archives: legal services

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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Basic Primer on the Budget Process

It’s budget prep time in Massachusetts, meaning that agencies and groups across the state are crunching numbers.  Any entity that gets state funding is assessing its current and future needs — with the goal of determining what its annual request to the Legislature will be for fiscal year 2013.  Earlier this week, the annual consensus revenue hearing was held before the House and Senate Ways & Means Committees.  This hearing marked the beginning of the process by which the Governor’s administration, the House and the Senate will ultimately settle on a final revenue estimate.  That agreed upon revenue estimate will lay the groundwork for building the 2013 budgets submitted by the Governor, the House and the Senate.

There’s a lot of forecasting that goes into determining what this consensus revenue number will be, including projected tax collection figures.  These are primarily drawn from the sales tax, the income tax and the capital gains tax.  Things like national trends and even what is going on globally will ultimately affect the economy here in Massachusetts.

Governor Patrick’s budget will come out in mid-January, followed by the House’s budget in April and the Senate’s budget in May.  The differences in the various budgets must be reconciled by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, 2012.

So how does the BBA fit into the state budget process?  Annually, the BBA advocates for adequate funding on behalf of civil legal services, our state courts, district attorneys and CPCS.  Recently, because of the economic pressures on the state budget, the budget campaign has become a year-round effort. Our advocacy has already begun.  We’ve joined forces with Greater Boston Legal Services and visited legislators to discuss funding for legal aid.  We’ll continue to push these and other issues later when we meet this week with the Governor’s legal counsel and next week with Speaker DeLeo.

But we don’t just sit around, waiting to see what the state budget allocates for legal services.  We do much more.  Through our charitable affiliate, the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF), we raise money to support legal aid.  Last year, the BBF made grants totaling $1.1 million to 25 Massachusetts community organizations providing a wide variety of core legal services – from domestic violence and immigration to housing and homelessness.  Remarkably, in spite of the economy, this $1.1 million was almost a $50,000 increase in core legal services grants, compared with FY10.

The BBA is also a major recruiter for the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), a pro bono initiative with an outstanding reputation.  In just the last few months the BBA held two trainings for VLP.  One was a Chapter 7 bankruptcy pro bono training, which drew over 100 lawyers.  The other training prepared lawyers to volunteer for one of our most successful pro bono programs, Housing Court Lawyer for the Day Program, which has flourished over the past twelve years.  The BBA has recruited scores of volunteers from law firms, solo practices and in-house corporate legal departments to provide assistance to unrepresented tenants and landlords on summary process day at the Housing Court.

But that’s not all we do to bridge the supply and demand gap for legal aid to the poor.  We co-sponsor and help recruit attendees for an important advocacy event, the annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.  Walk to the Hill, now in its 13th year, will take place on January 26th at 11 am at the State House.  It’s particularly timely, since it occurs the day after the Governor’s budget is expected to be released.

We do what we can to help in a variety of ways and we do it all year long.  But none of the things we do in this area can substitute for the work that veteran legal services lawyers provide.  We recognize that our role is to help secure the funding necessary to allow those attorneys to focus on the immediate needs of their clients.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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Legislators Who Understand Need for Legal Aid

For many years the BBA has advocated alongside Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) for the Massachusetts Legal Aid Corporation line item, which is the state funding source for civil legal aid to poor people.  In meetings at the State House we are typically joined by a client of GBLS who is also a constituent of the particular lawmaker with whom we are meeting.  This puts a human face on the funding request.  More important, the constituents’ personal stories provide real life illustrations of the difference that legal services attorneys make on the lives of people facing desperate legal problems.

Let me tell you about once such meeting last year.  It was the first time we had met with Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, whose district is in Southeast Massachusetts (Dighton, Somerset, Swansea and Taunton).  We brought along a low-income grandmother whose story would be familiar to any legal services lawyer trying to secure visitation rights to a grandchild whose parent is out of the picture.

We spoke with Rep. Haddad for over an hour.  We rattled off numbers and talked about the decline in IOLTA funds, the number of layoffs statewide in legal services, how legal services actually brings money into the state, and how the private bar does its part too by volunteering pro bono hours and raising private money for legal services.  But it was the real life story of the constituent that generated the greatest impact.

Rep. Haddad said she was glad we came to talk with her about this important issue.  Her sincerity was confirmed only a few days later when we ran into her in the reception area of Speaker DeLeo’s office.  She told us she was there for the same reason: to discuss legal services funding with the Speaker.

Tonight we get the opportunity to thank Rep. Haddad, along with Chairman Stephen M. Brewer (Senate Ways & Means), Chairwoman Cynthia Stone Creem (Joint Judiciary Committee), Chairman Brian S. Dempsey (House Ways & Means Committee), and Steven A. Tolman (President of the AFL-CIO and former Senator).

Happily, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, our partners in the Equal Justice Coalition, will be joining us for a recognition reception.  With the Legislature in informal session until January, this is a great opportunity to honor some of the legislative leaders who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to civil legal aid in 2011.

The State House has already begun to prepare for the FY13 budget cycle.  We hope at this time next year we will be in a similar position: thanking those who made MLAC’s $14.5 million for FY13 request a reality.

-Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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Let’s Not Revisit the Tax on Legal Services

The new Tax Expenditure Commission, created by Outside Section 160 of the FY12 budget and chaired by Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez, will meet regularly over the next six months to study the Commonwealth’s $24 billion tax expenditure budget.  The process includes reviewing all tax breaks, tax credits, sales tax exemptions and corporate deductions in an effort to measure the effectiveness of these carve-outs.  The recommendations of the Tax Expenditure Commission are due by April 30, 2012.

In addition to reviewing the current tax expenditure budget, the Commission has been charged with issuing recommendations regarding any changes to the current tax expenditures and criteria for new tax expenditures.  Since there has been no increase in broad-based taxes since the sales tax hike in fiscal year 2009, this could potentially mean a renewed interest in adopting a tax on legal and other professional services.

This would not be the first time Massachusetts has experimented with the misguided idea of instituting a tax on legal services.  The idea of a services tax was first proposed in 1975 but ultimately not adopted by the legislature.  Soon after, a coalition in favor of the tax sought to have a referendum put on the ballot.  In conjunction with other professional groups, the BBA launched a campaign to educate the public about the economic effects of such a tax – that clients, rather than firms, would absorb the overwhelming majority of the burden.  A legal services tax would fall disproportionately on those least able to afford legal representation, thereby limiting access to justice.

In the early 1990’s the issue came to a head when a sales tax on legal services actually passed in the state legislature and was signed into law.  Amid revelations that this tax would apply not just to services  provided by attorneys, accountants and other professionals — but also to such services as lawn mowing and snow plowing — support for repealing the tax increased.  The BBA, joined by the MBA, mobilized its members and focused its efforts on informing the legislature and incoming Governor Weld of the economic and legal flaws in a services tax.  Groups representing other segments of the professional community worked on this too and, two days after the tax took effect, Governor Weld signed legislation repealing the services tax.

Of primary concern for the BBA is the constitutionality of such a proposal.  The right to obtain the services of an attorney is a natural right guaranteed by the United States Constitution and is immune from the imposition of an excise tax.

There are also other compelling arguments to be made against a legal services tax.  A sales tax would compromise the attorney-client relationship by requiring an attorney to act as a tax collector and submit sensitive client information to the Department of Revenue.   Rather than serving as an advocate in a confidential relationship, an attorney would be forced to share privileged information with third parties.

We’ll watch closely now as the Tax Expenditure Commission continues to meet.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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Legal Services Corporation Needs a Lifeline

This week BBA President Lisa Goodheart sent a letter to Senator John Kerry and the rest of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation requesting support and protection for the funding of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).  As written about before on Issue Spot, support for legal services is a core part of the BBA’s mission and is a vital service to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Funding for civil legal assistance in Massachusetts is a partnership between federal, state and local governments as well as private attorneys and foundations.  The current economic climate has led to a substantial drop in resources for LSC programs due to both a 50 percent decrease in IOLTA revenue over the past two years and budgetary constraints among state and private contributors. All this comes at a time of unprecedented need – more than 1 in 5 Americans now qualify for legal assistance.

Legal services funding is not merely a spending issue.  LSC-funded programs in Massachusetts provide critical legal services to individuals who need it most, including victims of domestic violence, veterans returning from combat, those coping with the after-effects of natural disasters, persons with disabilities, and individuals undergoing foreclosures and evictions.  LSC funds four programs in Massachusetts – the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Justice Project, Merrimack Valley North Shore Legal Services and the New Center for Legal Advocacy – all of whom have already absorbed massive cuts to their budgets and staff.

Why is LSC funding in jeopardy now?  It all goes back to August when Congress, reaching a last-minute compromise on the debt ceiling crisis, established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.  The Committee is made up of 12 lawmakers – including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry – who have been tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in budget savings by November 23rd.  If the Committee is unable to come up with the necessary savings, the difference will be made up by automatic spending cuts, divided evenly among domestic and defense programs.

Senator John Kerry and, in general, the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation have been supportive of legal services.  They understand that legal aid attorneys provide meaningful representation to people who have no place else to turn.  Despite the presence in Congress of legal aid advocates who appreciate the importance of legal services, the fiscal situation before the Committee is daunting.  Funding cuts threaten to adversely impact our neighbors, friends, families, and communities.  We need to do everything we can to ensure that the citizens of Massachusetts are able to receive the legal assistance they need.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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