This past week, Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his budget proposal for the year that begins July 1. We recounted some, but not all, of the highlights and lowlights in this space on Saturday.
Here’s another lowlight: While the governor’s proposal called for spending $83.5 billion, a record amount, he couldn’t spare a dime for legal assistance for Floridians who can’t afford to hire lawyers in civil court, where noncriminal cases are handled.
This is disappointing but not surprising. Scott has not only left out civil legal assistance in his previous budget proposals, he has vetoed a series of modest allocations of up to $2 million that the Legislature included in its budgets.
But a recent study makes a convincing case for the Legislature to include funding again in this category — and for the governor to break with his pattern and sign off on it.
Commissioned by The Florida Bar Foundation, the study concluded that every dollar spent on civil legal aid for lower-income Floridians yields more than $7 in benefits. As Bar Foundation President Matthew Brenner said, “Equal justice under law is not only a basic underpinning of our democracy; it’s also good economic policy.”
In short, it’s a better deal for taxpayers to invest at the front end to help fellow Floridians solve problems in civil court, instead of paying more to deal with the consequences to the state’s economy of unsolved problems at the back end. This same logic would apply — and should appeal — to other potential legal aid contributors, including the business community and nonprofits. Here’s how the math works:
Civil legal assistance helps lower-income residents secure the benefits to which they are entitled. This includes federal benefits for veterans as well as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. It includes state benefits such as unemployment compensation. And it includes disputed wages and unpaid child support, too. When Floridians get back more of the dollars they’re owed, they spend them and support local businesses and jobs.
Legal assistance also reduces the financial burden on government agencies, businesses and nonprofits by helping more Floridians avoid foreclosures, evictions, domestic violence and other personal and family crises. And when people can work through their legal problems and stabilize their lives, they’re more likely to be assets for their families, their employers and their communities.
For those who might be skeptical of the recent study, previous ones in Florida and other states have found comparable or even higher returns for every dollar spent on civil legal assistance.
Legal aid is not a middle-class entitlement in Florida. State residents making more than 125 percent of the poverty level are ineligible for help.
Florida is one of only a few states that don’t annually provide state funding for this need. The federal government and some local governments in Florida contribute. So do the Bar Foundation and private donors. Still, overall funding in Florida in 2015 fell to $83 million, its lowest level in a decade. That was enough to cover only about 20 percent of the need that year.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga of the Florida Supreme Court has made expanding access to civil justice in the state one of his top priorities. He has appointed a commission to consider multiple strategies — not just increased funding, but also more efficient ways, such as better utilizing technology, to meet the need for legal services. This is a sensible approach. There is no silver-bullet solution for a problem this big, and this complicated. But money matters.
Labarga has not pleaded for more funding from the governor or legislators. Now that the Bar Foundation’s study has been released, he shouldn’t have to.
Scott often cites the return on investment when evaluating state spending. If he applies that standard to civil legal assistance, he’ll urge legislators to fill this gap in his budget.