SADOW: Louisiana Shouldn’t Directly Fund Legal Services

You might say it’s “only” $500,000, but it’s money better spent at the state level elsewhere and continues Louisiana’s unhealthy habit of having the state finance what should be local matters.

Tucked into HB 392, that amount of money would go to the state’s three legal services corporations contracted with the federal government’s Legal Services Corporation. That entity funnels money to area providers within states to fund legal services rendered to low-income individuals in most civil matters (some it legally cannot underwrite).

Proponents have argued the infusion by state taxpayers will increase the representation of these people in matters such as family law, housing, successions, and labor. They say that the organizations, which receive funding from numerous sources besides federal government contracts, with this will become eligible for more funds from foundations that insist a state chip in some money before they’ll grant money to such groups.

But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that not only is the provision of these services a responsibility of local governments – not the least because federal awards go not to states but to service districts within states comprised of local governments (in some smaller states by size or population the district is statewide) whose organs adjudicate justice – but Louisiana already in a circuitous fashion funds these efforts. A review of state audits of the two groups specifically mentioned in the bill, the Southeast Louisiana Legal Service Corporation and the Acadiana Legal Services Corporation, provides examples.

Acadiana pulled in over $6 million in grants and a smattering of donations for 2018. Just over half came from the federal government, and just under a half came from the Louisiana Bar Foundation, a charitable organization formed to provide legal aid funding that itself receives large donation from various other foundations, corporations, individuals, and the Louisiana Supreme Court. Grantors include a number of Councils on Aging, which receive state money and will receive more thanks to Act 127 passed this past legislative session that locks the state into giving $4 million more a year to these entities.

Southeast did even better, drawing over $7 million in grants with a bit more in donations. It depended a bit less on the federal LSC, with just over half of its revenues from it, and less still from the LBF, which contributed about a quarter. It also received money from a few Councils on Aging, which draw some of their money from local governments as well, either through contracts or direct levies on taxpayers.

In short, the infrastructure already exists for local governments to supply adequate funding to legal services, and their resources include state dollars. The total coming from the Supreme Court and passed through Councils on Aging, either directly from the state or indirectly through local governments, far exceeds the additional direct $500,000.

Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, a lawyer always looking to funnel taxpayer money to his key support group of other lawyers, has said he will sign HB 392 without line item vetoes of these funds. That goes against the wisdom expressed by the Republican Pres. Donald Trump Administration, which has tried to end federal direct subsidy of the national LSC. It appropriately argues that this is not a federal function, and, as no constitutional right is involved, neither is it appropriate that states do this as well. In reality, this is the primary responsibility of the bar, which as part of its canon instructs lawyers to serve individuals unable to pay for all legal services either at reduced cost or for free.

(Proponents of this funding also raise the specter of Trump succeeding in eliminating the LSC subsidy as a reason for taxpayers to fork over the additional $500,000. That seems unlikely, but if it did happen, only then a debate could occur over whether the state should step in, and not before something like that occurred.)

GOP former Gov. Bobby Jindal had it right when he stopped past state funding of services related to civil law. Rather than squeeze taxpayers further, the bar needs to do a better job of fulfilling its professional responsibilities, and local governments can decide how much to make their taxpayers subsidize that activity.

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