California’s state bar leaders will submit a preliminary budget to the legislature next week that they say makes the case for an ongoing $100 annual fee increase for active attorneys in 2020, plus a one-time $210 charge for capital projects.
Bar trustees, meeting in San Francisco on Friday, said that without additional revenues the agency faces years of mounting budget deficits as well as potential hiring freezes, deferred maintenance and a slowdown in processing lawyer disciplinary cases.
“We need to provide the legislature the information they’ve asked for, which is the case for a fee increase,” said board chairman Jason Lee. “Because we’ve asked for a fee increase for a number of years [and] they’ve … pushed us off.”
The legislature, which authorizes the bar to charge a specific amount of dues in annual legislation, has kept fees flat for almost two decades—most recently because of criticisms about poor board oversight of the agency and significant changes to its operating structure. The bar will undergo a state audit and a review by the legislative analyst’s office next year, the results of which will shape lawmakers’ decision on whether to approve higher dues for attorneys.
Next year’s budget is expected to include a $15.3 million deficit and will rely heavily on reserves to cover the shortfall. Nearly $9 million is slated for spending on capital projects in that bar’s two offices, including a $3.7 million budget for prepping the San Francisco building’s third floor for a private lease.
Some trustees asked whether it’s wise for the bar to spend money on projects like that with the budget running in the red. Leah Wilson, the bar’s executive director, said the agency will probably be criticized whether trustees choose to pay for the office improvements or channel the money to the disciplinary unit.
“If the board decides to make the investment so that we can lease out the third floor, the criticism could be, ‘Why are you making a discretionary choice to spend money to lease a floor? You don’t have to do that,’” Wilson said. “But if the board decides not to, the other criticism that we’ve experienced for the last two years is you’re not maximizing the value of the building that you own.”
Any budget proposal is likely to change in the coming months. The annual dues bill, too, will shape future spending plans as lawmakers make amendments throughout next year’s legislative session.
Read: 2019 State Bar Preliminary Budget and Five Year Forecast