How can the city close a $72 million budget gap? If you ask Maryland and District officials, they’ll start by implementing all of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “priorities”: consolidating office offices, reducing wasteful spending and filing frivolous lawsuits. She’s already closed three of them; in December, a grand jury judged them “unconstitutional.” But putting three of the committees she closed into the public works department without public input would be laughable. The whole idea of a “poverty roundtable” the mayor held at her Citizens Advisory Board on Feb. 25 was simply a glorified photo-op. And reinstating Legal Aid lawyers a week after cutting them is precisely the wrong way to spend scarce cash.
This past week, hundreds of people filed in to picket the three cases the protesters have filed: a class-action lawsuit demanding an end to illegal home foreclosures; a petition for reimbursement of the thousands of dollars activists paid to wake up the protesters in 1968; and an action on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, who were joined by 34 current and former priests.
Right now, the last thing either city needs is more unnecessary legal fights. It would be easier to close a $72 million budget gap, eliminate some superfluous functions, and avoid larger clashes in the future with a cleaner approach.
Why roll back cuts to Legal Aid? It’s not exactly clear that they had very big backlogs. The District’s legal department received $83 million this year from the Office of the Legal Counsel, plus $4.6 million from Justice, the private firm that contracts with the Office of the Legal Counsel to provide legal advice. The Legal Services Corporation put up a loan of $95 million to cover more lawyer costs, part of a broader trend of legal aid agencies trying to shift more cases to private funds.
As late as December, the Legal Services Corporation had to provide $43 million in emergency cash for the District. More important is that those other providers, including the Office of the Legal Counsel, aren’t going away. Ms. Bowser claims that a multi-year funding cut of more than $10 million is pushing up legal costs, but the city’s own audit found few cases ready for trial.
Bills filed by State Senators E.J. Pipkin and Jim Rosapepe (the latter would reinstate legal aid funding at the same level now being maintained) argue that the city will not just see court fees grow from this; they’ll save money. When poverty roundtables are held, they ask attendees, “If you had to make one choice to improve the quality of your life, which would it be?” and of course many volunteers answer “Legal aid,” which opens the discussion to people who might otherwise not have had a voice.
We’ve been waiting for this moment in the District for almost three years. What’s wrong with draining any hope that the city can be a beacon for every citizen struggling to get a fair shake?