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U.S. Census Bureau figures showing fewer poor people than had been estimated living in Southwest Texas will cause a significant cut in funding for the legal aid program that serves the region. “We’re really getting hammered,” says David Hall, executive director of Texas Rural Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to low-income people in a 68-county area extending from Austin south to Brownsville and west to El Paso. Hall predicts that TRLA’s budget, which was set at $15.5 million for 2002, will be slightly less than $15 million next year, necessitating the closure of some offices and legal staff layoffs in the region. Eric Kleiman, spokesman for the Legal Services Corp., the Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit organization that distributes federal funds to legal aid programs around the United States, says TRLA’s projected funding loss for 2003 is $398,378. In addition, TRLA is expected to lose $21,806 in federal funding next year for its migrant legal services, Kleiman says. The 2000 census figures also will affect TRLA’s funding from the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, which divvies up Interest on Lawyer Trust Account funds and monies generated by the lawsuit add-on fee collected by state courts. Betty Balli Torres, TEAJF’s executive director, says the recommended funding level for TRLA in 2003 is $112,880 less than the program received from the foundation this year. Torres says the Census Bureau counted 16,248 more poor people in TRLA’s service area in 2000 compared to a decade earlier. TRLA loses money because substantially more impoverished people were counted in other areas of the country, she says. “In this situation, more gives you less. It’s very sad,” Torres says. Kleiman says the projected total federal funding loss for Texas’ basic legal services programs is $463,605. Lone Star Legal Aid, which serves the eastern portion of the state, is expected to lose $44,925, while West Texas Legal Aid, which serves the state’s northern counties, is expected to receive $1,645 more than it did this year, he says. Paul Furrh, chief executive officer of the Lone Star program, says the effect of federal funding reductions in Texas is made worse because declining interest rates have lowered the amount of money available through IOLTA. “Interest rates are going down, and everybody loses,” Furrh says. The IOLTA program also faces a constitutional challenge that it might not survive, Kleiman says. The U.S. Supreme Court could decide the program’s fate in Washington Legal Foundation v. Legal Foundation of Washington, which is pending before the court. The WLF, a conservative litigation group based in Washington, D.C., challenged the IOLTA program in the state of Washington and also has challenged the Texas program. Kleiman says projections indicate 10 other states will lose more federal funds than Texas. The biggest loser is expected to be Michigan, which could see an almost $2 million drop in its federal funding, he says. California is projected to be one of the biggest winners. Kleiman says the Census Bureau’s finding that about 1.1 million more poor people live in California than did a decade ago is expected to increase that state’s funding from the LSC by about $7.3 million. BY THE NUMBERS Hall says he believes the Census Bureau failed to accurately count poor people in counties along the Texas-Mexico border. The state had projected the poverty population in Hidalgo County had increased by about 75,000 in the past decade, but the census figures indicated the increase was less than 35,000, he says. The lower numbers will have a long-term effect on TRLA’s funding, Hall says. “This is unfortunately locked in for a decade,” he says, predicting that TRLA’s loss over 10 years could be as much as $7 million. Hall says projections that funding will be reduced come as TRLA is negotiating with union representatives from the National Organization of Legal Services Workers to “rationalize” salaries for its attorneys. The LSC required consolidations by Texas’ nine legal service programs to create three super programs. Four programs — Bexar County Legal Aid Association in San Antonio, Coastal Bend Legal Services in Corpus Christi, El Paso Legal Assistance Society and Legal Aid of Central Texas in Austin — merged with TRLA to serve the southwestern portion of the state. But Hall says salaries for the 108 attorneys in the consolidated program vary significantly. While TRLA traditionally has started new, yet-to-be-licensed attorneys at $25,000 per year, starting salaries at other programs brought in by the merger have been about $34,000, Hall says. If TRLA does not address the differences in salaries, Hall says, it will lose lawyers. But he says addressing that situation could add another $1 million to $2 million to TRLA’s annual costs. Hall says TRLA probably is looking at a 10 percent reduction in its staff and the consolidation of some of its 22 offices. The program handles about 25,000 cases annually, he says. The projected reduction would mean about 2,500 fewer cases could be handled each year, he adds. Kleiman says there is still a hope that Congress will increase LSC’s appropriation to offset the funding losses faced by some states. But he says fiscal restraint has been the watchword in Washington, and Texas may have to look to the state Legislature and private sources for funding. Notes Kleiman: “Everyone is looking for a life preserver here, but no one is quite sure from where it will come.”

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