Raleigh, N.C. — Legislators took a bite this past session out of taxpayer funding for poor people caught up in the courts system, and it's unclear why.
The heads of the three agencies that used this money – and a much larger pot of threatened federal funding – to handle thousands of child custody cases, landlord/tenant disputes and other civil matters said they received no notice for the cut and that they've gotten no explanation in the ensuing month.
"We were totally blindsided," said Kenneth Schorr, executive director at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. "There was no communication this was on the table."
The cut materialized in the House. Legislative staff there referred WRAL News to Speaker Tim Moore's office for an explanation, but his spokesman said Moore would not comment on the matter.
The four co-chairmen of the House's Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee did not respond to WRAL News requests for comment. The only possible explanations Schorr and similar agency heads have heard came third-hand or worse and may be little more than speculation.
"All we've gotten is rumor," said George R. Hausen Jr., president and executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, the largest of three attorney groups that get state money for this work.
The lack of communication fits a pattern, as other questions on unrelated budget cuts during and after the legislative session also were met with silence.
What these groups do
These groups marshal several hundred attorneys around the state to help thousands of people who can't afford a lawyer navigate the ins and outs of civil lawsuits.
Much of the litigation ties back to domestic violence cases, but legal aid clinics also fight evictions and predatory lending practices. It's a hodge-podge of work done by full-time staff attorneys, backed up by outside lawyers who often volunteer their time.
Starting pay for staff attorneys at the Legal Aid of North Carolina is about $41,000 a year, Hausen said.
Pisgah Legal Services, which operates in western North Carolina and is the smallest of the state's three taxpayer-supported legal aid groups, recently helped a man dying of cancer with rush legal documents, Executive Director Jim Barrett said. In another case, attorneys helped a mother get a protection order from her abusive husband and custody of her three daughters.
The groups also help people get disability payments and Medicaid.
Barrett said the $1.7 million the state cut more than paid for itself, in part by keeping children out of the foster system, keeping evicted tenants from becoming homeless and keeping people out of the hospital.
"If they don't get access to a lawyer at the right moment ... things spiral downward," he said.
How they're funded
More than 40 percent of the funding for these programs, which topped $25.5 million in fiscal 2015, comes from the federal government.
President Donald Trump's budget proposal would zero-out the federal money nationwide, but the programs have support in Congress and are expected to survive the budgeting process. Republican U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina have helped protect this funding in the past, and Tillis reaffirmed that support during the North Carolina Bar Association's recent annual meeting, Hausen said.
The state money makes up less than 10 percent of legal aid budgets, but if it's not replaced, the cut will eventually mean attorney layoffs, with each one reducing the number of clients who can be helped in a year by hundreds, clinic directors said.
State money earmarked for domestic violence cases remains in the latest budget, but a more flexible source of funding was deleted. Criminal cases produce court fees, and these groups had been getting $1.50 per case, plus another 95 cents for domestic violence work. The program, Equal Access to Justice, began in 2005.
With this year's budget, legislators simply deleted a sentence in state code dedicating the $1.50 fee. They kept the 95 cents intact, but Hausen said the two streams of funding were entangled.
"The 95 cents may pay an attorney (in a domestic violence case) but not the rent," he said.
Separately, legislators added $100,000 to the budget, which Pisgah will use to extend a pilot project exclusively for veterans. The cut for Pisgah amounts to only $85,000 in a budget of $4 million, but Barrett said he sees no logic in the decision. All three agencies said that, even in the best years, they have never come close to filling the public's demand for their services.
"I wish somebody would ask the speaker what the problem was," Barrett said. "If justice matters to the state government ... that's pretty small potatoes out of a huge need for poor people to have lawyers."