The Miami Herald

Gov. Rick Scott veto hurts legal assistance program for poor

A $2 million veto by Gov. Rick Scott will mean fewer attorneys to represent low-income residents through foreclosure proceedings, domestic violence hearings and consumer fraud cases, legal aid officials and a top Democrat lamented Wednesday.

A day after the governor vetoed $142 million from the budget, officials at an organization that provides legal help for low income Floridians said Scott's decision will mean a 25 percent reduction in the number of attorneys available for legal assistance in the coming year. A year later, the number of available attorneys will drop even further.

"It's the worst of all worlds", said Kent Spuhler, Florida Legal Services executive director. "We thought we had adequately explained the situation."

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, said there was not a clear justification for the size of the appropriation or the need for recurring funds. The spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, also said the program has other funding sources on which it can rely during tough budget times.

"While the governor believes in the right for everyone to have representation, he doesn’t necessarily believe in funding programs with recurring funds in these economic times," Schutz said.

Legal service groups say other sources of money aren't adequate. Funded in part by an endowment from the Florida Bar Foundation, Florida Legal Service is seeing funding from that source dry up as investment portfolios reflect the low interest returns that other investments have suffered.

That, coupled with a decrease in local governments' ability to fund programs has put more pressure on the state.

Spuhler expects to see the number of attorneys available for referrals to drop from more than 400 to fewer than 280.

Since the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act was passed in 2002 the Legislature has made annual state appropriations to help low income residents access state and federal benefits and provide representative for a host of other civil matters including elder abuse, child protection and immigration.

The program, championed by former Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, has grown from a pilot project to a statewide effort, with lawmakers in past years providing up to $2.5 million in state funds for legal assistance. Local legal aid organization receive funds based on grant applications, which include income limits on participants.

In 2010, the Florida Bar Foundation hired Florida TaxWatch to do a study on the effect of the 2002 law. Tallahassee-based TaxWatch determined that for every dollar spent, nearly $14 in economic activity was generated.

Further, the study found that such efforts created about 170 non-legal jobs and $22 million in disposable income.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, who also announced this week she is running for governor, said the veto was short-sighted and comes at a time when lower income Floridians are disproportionately feeling the brunt of economic woes - foreclosures, evictions, denial of government benefits. The cutting of legal aid at a time of rising need is especially painful.

"We pride ourselves in this country on people having access to the courts," Rich said Wednesday. "This decision flies in the face of that commitment."




© 2012 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com