The nation’s providers of civil legal assistance for the poor could face more staffing reductions and provide services to fewer people if Congress is unable to resolve its latest budget crisis by March 1.
Unless Congress comes up with a last-minute deal next week to avoid $85 billion in automatic and arbitrary forced cuts, called sequestration, the Legal Services Corp. will suffer a 5 percent across-the-board cut to its annual funding, agency president Jim Sandman said. Those cuts would follow two years of steep cuts to LSC funding.
The sequestration cuts would mean a $16.3 million cut to grants to the nation’s legal aid providers, Sandman said. Those cuts would first affect payments in April. Since LSC is well into its current budget year, the monthly checks would be reduced 7.4 percent.
LSC, the largest source of funding nationwide for civil legal aid, conducted a webinar with agencies earlier this week detailing the nuts and bolts of the potential for cuts. Each state has different ways to add other funding to the programs, so each of the 134 agencies relying on LSC grants would be affected differently by the cuts from Congress.
At Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, Inc., which depends on LSC for about 80 percent of its budget, the cuts would mean a reduction of $600,000, executive director Janice Chiaretto said. The agency has already had to lay off several employees because of LSC budget slashes in the past two years, including a 4 percent cut in 2011 and a 14.8 percent cut going into 2012.
The sequester "could mean layoffs and furloughs because we’ve already done everything we can to cope with the 18.8 percent," Chiaretto said. "It means less people get served."
But there’s not much the agency can do in terms of preparation, Chiaretto said. "We hope it doesn’t happen."
Congress set up the cuts to be so odious that members of both parties would compromise on better ways to cut the federal budget. They avoided the "fiscal cliff" on January 1 with a last-minute plan that delayed the automatic cuts until March 1. But in that time, Congress has still not passed a plan to avoid sequestration.
The Senate has agreed to have either Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduce a bill February 25 or February 26 to replace the sequester under the Budget Control Act. For now, there is no clear legislative path.
Last year, even without the sequester cuts, an LSC survey found the nation’s civil legal aid agencies were on pace to lay off 350 attorneys and 400 support staff in 2012 because of budget cuts from Congress and other funding reductions.
Legal aid organizations are also being squeezed because of reduced funding from other sources, such as Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, known as IOLTA funding. At the same time, high unemployment rates have increased the number of people needing help.
Last year, the Republican-led House has passed a bill that would cut another 6 percent from the LSC’s current budget. The House proposal of $328 million, when adjusted for inflation, would be an all-time low for the 38-year-old organization, according to a recent report from the Conference of Chief Justices.
The Democratic-led Senate Appropriations Committee approved the full amount of President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request for the LSC at $402 million. That would be a 16 percent increase from the 2012 budget of $348 million, and would return funding to 2011 levels.
The two chambers never hashed out a deal.
Todd Ruger is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York