ABA braces for LSC appropriations battle

 

The ABA is bracing for a fight to preserve funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which is facing a $70 million cut as part H.R. 1, legislation passed by the House Feb. 18 that would reduce current-year appropriations for programs across the federal government by approximately $60 billion.

Most federal programs are currently being funded at fiscal year 2010 levels through a continuing resolution that expires March 4, and the cuts in H.R. 1 would affect discretionary and non-security programs.

The LSC projects that the $70 million reduction in the LSC’s appropriation – which would come out of the $394.4 million allotted for basic field grants – would be “devastating” to the 136 nonprofit legal aid programs around the country that receive LSC funding. According to the LSC, approximately 160,000 fewer low-income people would receive civil legal assistance, and 80,000 fewer cases would be handled by LSC-funded programs. The LSC also projects layoffs for approximately 370 legal aid staff attorneys and the shutting down of many programs serving rural areas.

 “Slashing funds that keep working class and poor people from falling into a legal and a financial tailspin is not the right decision in this economy,” according to ABA President Stephen N. Zack. “Every cent spent helping families deal with crises such as eviction, child support and custody or a domestic violence restraining order ultimately saves taxpayer money. Legal providers in every area of the country are already hurting from years of underfunding, worsened by the effects of the recession,” he said.

The House faced several hundred proposed amendments during consideration of H.R. 1. Members sustained a point of order Feb. 15 against an amendment offered by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) that sought to increase the LSC amount in the bill by $70 million. The next day, the House rejected, by a 171-259 vote, an amendment that would have eliminated all $394.4 million in LSC basic field grant funding.

H.R. 1 now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Meanwhile, President Obama unveiled a proposed budget of $3.72 trillion for fiscal year 2012 on Feb. 14. That proposal would freeze overall domestic discretionary spending at fiscal year 2010 levels for the next five years but provide increases in some education programs, transportation and clean energy efforts in an attempt to make the country more competitive.

The LSC fared well under the president’s proposals with a request for a $30 million increase, which would bring the program’s total appropriation to $450 million.

In a Feb. 10 letter to Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over LSC, ABA President Zack discussed the challenges ahead with respect to providing civil legal services for the poor. He emphasized that holding the line against cuts in LSC funding is paramount and explained that in the current economic climate other sources of revenue to support legal services programs are in decline. For example, Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) programs are producing 57 percent less revenues nationally than in prior years.

He vowed that the ABA and the organized bar as a whole will continue vigorous efforts to stimulate an even greater outpouring of generosity by private lawyers in donating services to address the legal needs of the poor.

He cited numerous examples of pro bono programs developed by the ABA and state and local bar associations as well as the pro bono services of individual lawyers and of those in large law firms who choose to channel their pro bono work toward important local or national causes. The association, he said, will sponsor a National Pro Bono Summit in Washington this fall to determine how to improve and expand the network of pro bono programs.

Zack concluded, however, that the LSC is the core of the nation’s system for providing legal services to the poor, and pro bono efforts cannot replace government support for civil legal services.

 

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