With help navigating the Statehouse this legislative session, the Indiana Bar Foundation is working to not only secure needed appropriations but also to build a partnership with the General Assembly and be a voice for access to justice programs.
It’s an ambitious agenda but the bar foundation now has Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner Heather Willey, a registered lobbyist, advocating its position. Less than halfway through the session, the IBF seems to have a more visible presence in the Statehouse and is more confident it will get the funding for its civic education curriculum as well as its pro bono efforts.
Charles Dunlap, executive director of the bar foundation, said the concern in the past was that his organization would get lost in the shuffle. The nonprofit did not know the ins and outs of the legislative process or how to connect with key legislators when things began moving very quickly.
The assistance from Willey has changed that, Dunlap said. She helps the bar foundation monitor not only the bills it supports but also identify measures that might be of interest to IBF’s members. She knows when to intervene and can get to the right people at the right time.
“For me personally, I can rely on her to let us know what we need to know, when we need to know it,” he said.
During previous sessions, Dunlap, who has also registered as a lobbyist, would often confer with Willey informally to ask for advice. When the two began speaking before the 2017 session began, Willey suggested she represent the bar foundation on a pro bono basis.
“I’m happy to do this,” Willey said. She noted the work allows her to take a different approach to traditional pro bono of representing a client with a legal matter. For the bar foundation, she is able use her skills and knowledge to advocate for their issues. “The bar foundation staff has made the work worthwhile.”
Topping the organization’s Statehouse agenda are funding for the We the People program and a bill extending the civil legal filing fee for another five years.
A $300,000 appropriation for We the People has been included in the state budget since 2013. The line item was inserted in the Senate version by Senate President Pro Tem David Long, a champion of the civic education program.
When the Senate and House came together to reconcile their budgets in the waning days of the past sessions, this appropriation would have been the type of item taken out and scrutinized. Long’s backing kept the funding for We the People in place, but Dunlap said the process was nerve-wracking.
Willey initiated a strategy before this session to build a coalition of support in the Statehouse rather than relying solely on Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. Letters with information about the We the People program were sent to legislators. Many of these officials then went to Willey with the letter in hand wanting to help, and leaders in both chambers are supportive.
The education program is not a hard sell, Willey said, explaining she wanted to make sure the funding was on the top of legislators’ minds. Again, the bar foundation is advocating for $300,000.
In addition to the growing support for the civic education program in the Legislature, Gov. Eric Holcomb included the funding in his budget proposal. This provides more security to We the People since, as Willey explained, it was in an early version and, typically, removing items from the budget is difficult.
The bar foundation is also paying close attention to Sen. Ron Grooms’ bill that would continue the $1 surcharge on civil legal filings until 2022. Since the Jeffersonville Republican successfully introduced the filing fee in 2012, the foundation has relied on the funds to provide volunteer lawyer services in the pro bono districts. Money for the districts traditionally comes from revenue from Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts, but when the economy crashed and interest rates flatlined during the Great Recession, the IOLTA income dropped from $300,000 per month to $30,000.
Annually, the filing fee has funneled more than $320,000 to the bar foundation.
Again on behalf of the bar foundation, Willey reached out to Grooms to offer the organization’s support of Senate Bill 42. Also, she connected with lawyer-legislators who understand civil legal aid and can educate their colleagues on the floor.
The measure was among the first to get out of the Senate and over to the House.However, Dunlap said the bar foundation does not want to only go to the Statehouse to ask for money. Instead, he would like the legislators to know the organization has expertise and can answer questions they may have, especially about civic education and access to justice issues.
Similarly, he believes the bar foundation can be a voice for civil legal aid organizations. By law, these nonprofits are prohibited from lobbying but the IBF can make officials aware of legal aid and the emerging trends in the field.
The bar foundation is being more active in the Statehouse because “if you’re not there, the legislators don’t know to look for you, to ask you questions or involve you in the discussion,” Dunlap said.•