By David G. Tuerck
Executive Director, BHI
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, thats another matter. Indeed, thats
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 doesnt 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
The difference, of course, is that
major corporations dont receive taxpayer funds to promote
their interests and lawyers in private practice dont
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
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
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.