Texas Budget for Legal Aid a Shadow of its Former Self

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February 16, 2011; Source: The Dallas Morning News | Legal services for the poor are in jeopardy all over the country as nearly every major funding source becomes threatened. NPQ reported in a Newswire last week that a $75 million cut to the Legal Services Corporation now being proposed would impact every state’s services, but the problems go much further and get much bigger when you look at funding locally.

The situation in Texas is a case in point. The Interest on Lawyers Trust Fund Accounts or IOLTA funds, that in 2007 provided $20 million in funding, is only expected to produce $5 million this year, largely due to the dismal housing market. The same downturn, of course increased the number of people qualifying for such aid by 600,000 and intensified the problems for which they might need legal counsel. And so the Texas Legislature last year voted to contribute $20 million, but this year, with the economy still in doubt, it is not planning a repeat.

As a result advocates and lawmakers are looking at other avenues for funding. According to a statement made today by the Texas Access to Justice Commission and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, a number of bills are being proposed to pick up the slack including: “an increase in District Court filing fees, creating a dedicated Judicial Access and Improvement Fund, and including a fee for creditors in the mortgage foreclosure process. A proposal to mandate funds generated by consumer protection suits will also be proposed . . . [additionally] Senator Jose Rodriguez filed SB 726, the Judicial Access and Improvement Fund legislation, on Feb. 15th. The bill relates to the establishment of the judicial access and improvement account to provide funding for basic civil legal services, indigent defense, and judicial technical support through certain county service fees and court costs imposed to fund the account [and] Rep. Elliott Naishtat filed HB 1392 today regarding a fee on the transfer of property following a foreclosure sale to fund civil legal services for indigents.”

This scene is being repeated many times over across the country. Watch for an article on this crisis by Lonnie Powers of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation at NPQ next week.—Ruth McCambridge