A proposal to raise annual Florida Bar dues $100 to fund a drastic shortfall in legal aid funding has polarized the legal community and launched a discussion of how to better fund legal services for the poor.

The Florida Bar board of governors voted against the proposal. However, the proponents—Kent Spuhler of Florida Legal Services, Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero—plan to file a petition with the Florida Supreme Court on June 16 requesting the Florida Bar take up the issue.

“A lot of people thought this was going to be a no-brainer,” said Marcia Cypen, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc. “But people are either wildly supportive or wildly opposed to this. The opposition is surprising to many people.”

The proposal to raise dues 27 percent from $265 to $365 was the brainchild of Spuhler, whose organization serves as a lobbying and umbrella group for legal aid programs statewide. The plan would raise a total of $10 million annually from the nearly 100,000 Florida lawyers.

Spuhler said he hatched the idea last year after hearing several other state bar associations, including ones in Illinois, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania, raised their annual dues to fund legal services for the indigent.

Funding for Florida legal aid programs has dwindled dramatically due to a drop in interest on trust accounts, or IOTA. The programs derive most of their funding from IOTA.

Due to historically low interest rates in recent years, legal aid programs have been financially devastated, laid off staff, closed branch offices and turned away up to half of the indigent clients who asked for help with foreclosures, veteran and family issues and other problems. In 2012, legal aid lawyers handled 89,720 cases.

‘Community Crisis’

Cantero, a partner with White & Case in Miami, said legal aid funding in Florida dropped from $44 million in 2007 to $5 million in 2013. Adding to the problem is the fact that Gov. Rick Scott, for the fourth consecutive year, vetoed $2 million in funding for civil legal assistance this year.

Raising bar dues requires a petition to the Florida Supreme Court to ask the Florida Bar to discuss the matter. Spuhler has gathered 460 signatures, well above the necessary 50. Among those signing the petition are four former Florida Bar presidents and three former Florida Supreme Court justices.

But, to the great surprise of the petitioners, the Bar is strongly opposed.

Florida Bar president Eugene Pettis said the Bar feels lawyers “have been taxed enough” and the business community should step up to contribute. He is planning to organize a summit on the issue in the fall and invite “all stakeholders.” He said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Florida Supreme Court Chief justices have signed on.

The Bar also plans to obtain a $6 million bridge loan to tide over legal aid agencies. The loan would be repaid from projected interest rate increases.

“Florida lawyers gave 1.7 million pro bono hours in 2013 and also gave $4.8 million out of their pockets,” Pettis said. “To tell lawyers, we are going to tax you more defies common sense. It’s shortsighted to say we are going to resolve this community crisis on the shoulders of lawyers. We need to address this with all the stakeholders at the table.”

Besides, he said $100 is a considerable amount for some lawyers, who are struggling to make ends meet and still haven’t recovered from the recession.

Step Up

Spuhler said a sliding scale could be added to accommodate new or struggling lawyers.

“I am surprised and disappointed that there was not a more thorough discussion and a pretty immediate and adamant response by the Bar,” Spuhler said.

Cantero doesn’t buy the Bar’s argument. He immediately signed on to help Spuhler and Berg when they reached out to him.

“One hundred dollars comes to eight dollars a month or a Starbucks coffee once a week,” he said. “We can’t wait any longer to debate whose responsibility this is. Someone has to step up and take leadership on this issue. A bridge loan is too little for what the needs are. We can talk all we want and hold a summit, but at some point we need to start doing something.”

Cypen agrees. One of the largest legal aid programs in the state, Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc. has a budget that went from $7.6 million in 2011 to $5.6 million in 2014, forcing staff layoff and fresh emphasis on fundraising efforts.

“As a person who has been involved with Legal Services for 40 years, I don’t see any choice but to support an effort that will raise $10 million a year,” she said. “The budget has never been worse. By raising the cap, the Supreme Court will give the board of governors the option to raise dues to address the crisis, and then the discussion can begin. We feel it is a logical step.”