Lobbyists do not need legal assistance funding


By David G. Tuerck
Executive Director, BHI

When money appropriated to assist those low-income residents goes instead to fund lobbyists engaged in promoting a particular social agenda, that is another matter.


Cut taxes, balance the budget

This year, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. will receive $7.5 million from the taxpayers of Massachusetts. It will dispense these dollars to a variety of organizations throughout the state that provide legal assistance to low-income persons who are victims of domestic violence or who have legal problems with employers, landlords, spouses or partners.

No one can be unmoved by the hardships that low-income people can suffer for want of legal representation. Few among us would deny them our help.
But when money appropriated to assist those low-income residents goes instead to fund lobbyists engaged in promoting a particular social agenda, that’s another matter. Indeed, that’s what’s happening.

Last year, for example, MLAC grantees lobbied for softening job requirements for welfare recipients and for paid parental leave. They also opposed legislation that would have put rent in escrow while tenants litigated grievances against landlords or that would have permitted landlord to take a civil action against drug-dealing tenants. Is this kind of lobbying legitimate?

The U.S. Congress doesn’t think so. In 1996, Congress put an end to using federal money for such purposes. Federally funded legal-services attorneys are prohibited from lobbying or filing class action suits.

The state-funded MLAC and its subsidiaries, however, are not bound by federal restrictions. Thus, MLAC is able, at taxpayer expense, to continue its lobbying activities under the guise of providing desperately needed legal services to low-income people.
One high-ranking MLAC official justified this practice on the argument that “any legal activity legitimate for a lawyer in private practice is a legitimate activity for us.” Said the same official, “Major corporations pay lots of money to promote their interests in the legislature. We are just providing that same kind of legal assistance to low-income people.”

The difference, of course, is that major corporations don’t receive taxpayer funds to promote their interests and lawyers in private practice don’t confuse legal assistance with lobbying.

Now MLAC is asking the legislature to increase its funding, from the current $7.5 million per year to $25.5 million in 2003. It claims that the increased money is needed because, among low-income Massachusetts residents, three out of five legal needs are going unmet.

But a closer look at the data suggests that the correct number is less than one in 10, not three out of five. The discrepancy arises because of the practice, among legal services advocates, of assuming that a legal need is met only if a lawyer becomes involved. When the data are adjusted to eliminate legal needs that are met without assistance of a lawyer, the number on unmet needs get much smaller. It gets still smaller when we eliminate needs that are unmet because the person expressing them simply decides not to pursue them.

Providing legal assistance for low-income residents is not the same as lobbying in the name of low-income residents. While taxpayers should support the former, they have no obligation to pay for the latter, especially when they may well be paying for a political or social agenda that they oppose.

The legislature should say “no” to any request for increased funding of MLAC until it and its grantees are willing to abide by the same rules that apply to federally funded legal-services. Until then, any additional funding would represent a disservice to those in need as well as to taxpayers.

David Tuerck is executive director of Beacon Hill Institute and chairman and professor of economics at Suffolk University in Boston. This article appeared in the June 26, 2000 edition of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and the June 28, 2000 edition of the Metrowest Daily News. Mass High Tech also carried the article on July 3, 2000.


Format revised on August 18, 2004