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A new plan for providing legal aid to the poor in Texas has lawyers who normally fight for low-income clients fighting among themselves. Under the plan, the nine programs funded by the federal Legal Services Corp. to assist low-income Texans in civil matters will merge to become three programs with super-sized service areas. If all goes according to plan, the mergers will become effective by Jan. 1, 2002. The existing programs had to file notices of their intent to submit proposals to run their service area by May 25 and must submit their plans in July. Hector De Leon, board chairman of Austin-based Legal Aid of Central Texas, became so concerned about the impending mergers that he asked U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, for help. His decision to involve the senator in the spat has drawn criticism from other legal aid advocates, who say Gramm supported cuts in LSC funding in 1995 and 1996. “It never makes sense to bring in people who basically have been your enemies and tried to kill you,” says Julie Oliver, director of Texas Lawyers Care, the State Bar of Texas program that oversees pro bono legal services for the poor. Gramm and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, another Texas Republican, expressed concern about the planned reconfiguration of the state’s service areas in a May 10 letter to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. “We do not believe that larger programs operated by distant bureaucracies can effectively deliver basic legal services to low-income people,” the letter says. The letter alleges that the reconfigured service areas were announced in April by Clinton administration “holdovers” who run the LSC and asked Gonzales to prevail on the corporation to delay action on the Texas reconfiguration until President George W. Bush can appoint a new LSC board to review the plan. “If the LSC fails to do so, I will seek a legislative remedy as part of the LSC’s annual appropriation,” Gramm says in a written statement issued by his office. Gramm spokesman Larry Neal says the senator’s staff is trying to set up a meeting with Gonzales’ staff. Gonzales did not return phone calls seeking comment. Eric Kleiman, LSC press secretary, says in a written statement that the Texas plan was “created by a broad range of local stakeholders.” The plan was adopted by LSC under the leadership of its president, John McKay, “a lifelong Republican, not a Clinton administration holdover,” the statement says. Oliver says LSC is distributing more than $329 million in federally funded grants to legal aid programs around the country this year. She says Texas received $25.2 million from LSC and $13.2 million from other sources — including the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program, the basic civil legal services fee, other federal programs, local government and private donations. John Jones, chairman of the recently formed Texas Access to Justice Commission, says he’s concerned that getting elected officials involved in the dispute could hurt the LSC system. “It’s sort of like going over your boss’s head to get his boss to change something,” says Jones, a shareholder in El Paso’s Delgado, Acosta, Braden & Jones. De Leon, a partner in Austin’s De Leon, Boggins & Icenogle, says he initially tried to work through the process, but the push to consolidate the programs has continued. “How is this going to help deliver legal services to the poor in Texas?” he asks. Regina Rogoff, Legal Aid of Central Texas executive director, says the program currently serves 16 counties. Under the reconfiguration plan, the program would be divided among the three service areas, she says. Oliver says the basis for dividing the Austin-based program came from a suggestion made by Rogoff several years ago. Rogoff had suggested that the northern counties served by her program be moved into the expanded service area created when Heart of Texas Legal Services of Waco merged with East Texas Legal Services in Nacogdoches. “That was a premise based on voluntary actions, not compelled actions,” Rogoff says. Rogoff also says she made the suggestion in a conversation and that her board would have to approve any change in the service area. CREATING A BUREAUCRACY? Brendan Gill, executive director of Bexar County Legal Aid, also opposes the merger plan. “They are going to create a huge, unresponsive bureaucracy,” Gill says. If clients have complaints about the legal services provided, Gill says, they can go to the local board. “Now, these boards are going to be distant bureaucracies,” he says. Gill also says the reconfiguration is “similar to a Robin Hood plan” because it will redistribute money from big cities to rural areas. “I do not hesitate to label it administrative tyranny,” he says. Robert Doggett, a member of the Texas State Bar’s Legal Services Committee and an assistant city attorney in Dallas, says the infighting is more detrimental to the programs than the planned mergers. “Whether or not mergers should happen is not the issue,” Doggett says. “How they’re bringing this issue up is unquestionably hurting legal services to the poor. Since when is it a good idea to ask Congress to get involved in a Texas dispute?” The plan to reconfigure the Texas service areas is part of an overhaul of LSC-funded programs nationwide. Mauricio Vivero, LSC vice president, says more than one-third of all the states have either reconfigured their legal aid service areas or are in the process of doing so. While there has been some criticism “here and there,” Vivero says, “we have not had a senator weigh in like this before.” Oliver says Congress cut LSC funding slightly in 1995 and more significantly the following year. Texas’ share of the federal funds dropped from about $33 million in 1994 to about $23 million in 1996, she says. LSC issued a directive in 1995, calling for statewide planning for legal aid services and directed states three years later to look at mergers and other means of efficiently using available resources, Oliver says. Paul Furrh, a lawyer and the executive director of East Texas Legal Services, chairs the state planning committee that began working on reconfiguration in 1999. “It’s been a well-visited issue over the course of time,” Furrh says. “This was not just, ‘Oh gee, let’s slap something together to satisfy LSC.’ “ Jones says the planning group included representatives from the Texas Supreme Court, the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, which oversees pro bono funding at the state level, as well as the network of legal service providers from around the state. A number of proposals for reconfiguration were presented at a January meeting of the statewide planning group in Austin. Jones says each of the proposals was “thoroughly dissected” before the group narrowed the field to two: a three-program service area proposal offered by Errol Summerlin, executive director of the Coastal Bend Legal Services in Corpus Christi, and a two-program service area plan sponsored by Gill. The program directors, who are lawyers, approved the three-service area plan on a 9-0 vote, but the Austin and San Antonio programs later reversed their votes. Jones says the two programs have attempted to get other programs to change their votes and avoid any attempt to reconfigure the Texas service areas. Gill says the boards for Legal Services of Central Texas and Bexar County Legal Aid rescinded the votes that he and Rogoff had cast. Although the directors could vote on different plans, the programs weren’t given any real choice about reconfiguration, De Leon says. “We were told you either do this or we’re going to shove it down your throats,” he says. LOOKING AT CLIENT BASE Dwayne Bilton, executive director of Houston’s Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, says his board is not necessarily sold on the idea that consolidation will produce better services for clients but doesn’t want to fight the process. Bilton says the Houston program currently serves 17 counties with a potential client base of about 600,000, based on the 1990 census. The new service area created by the mergers will result in a potential client base of almost 900,000, he says. “It’s going to be a huge area,” Bilton says. “My board feels we’ll probably be stretched a little far.” But Bilton says his board believes the program “has to get on the playing field” so that it can have an opportunity to provide the services. Fighting to stop the reconfiguration won’t stop the process, he says. “Any victories that may be won right now will be just postponing the inevitable,” Bilton says, noting that the trend in the business world is toward mergers. “I don’t think any of the programs in Texas thought it was an essential thing to do that [reconfigure service areas], but the Legal Services Corp. thought otherwise,” says David Hall, executive director of the Weslaco-based Texas Rural Legal Aid. But Hall says he believes the program directors adopted the best plan that they could come up with. The whole idea of reconfiguration is to try to equalize the availability of services so that someone who lives in a rural area or is institutionalized has the same access to legal aid as a person who lives within five blocks of a legal services program, he says. Oliver says that Houston, the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the Austin-San Antonio area have the vast majority of lawyers in Texas. Under the adopted plan, each service area has one of those major urban areas and at least two law schools, she says. The proponents also tout the mergers as a way to cut administrative costs so that more money will be available for legal services. Oliver says maintaining nine infrastructures, including boards and administrative offices for each program, is more expensive than maintaining three infrastructures. But the mergers will leave some of the people who run the legal aid programs in Texas out of work.

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