Amid another call for defunding, LSC asking for an increase

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The Legal Services Corp.’s request for a nearly $175 million increase in funding over the current level for fiscal year 2019 has again been snubbed by the Trump Administration which is calling for the elimination of all federal money to the legal aid agency next year.

LSC leaders are confident of continued support from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill but the organization is asking for more money even though it may still get a funding cut in fiscal year 2018.

The two-year budget deal Congress reached earlier this month did not set funding for LSC. Instead, Congress is holding the legal aid agency at the 2017 level of $385 million until the appropriations process is completed. Currently, the completion date has been scheduled for March 23.

Appropriation proposals from the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate differ on the level of support for LSC.  The Senate is proposing to keep 2018 funding at the 2017 level of $385 million while the House wants to slash the amount to $300 million.

Still, even as Congress is working on the appropriations for fiscal year 2018, the White House has released its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal and, as it did last year, is calling for LSC to be defunded.

“I am optimistic that Congress will continue to fund LSC because LSC promotes the most fundamental of American values – equal justice under the law,” said LSC president Him Sandman in a press release.  “…LSC has had broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for more than 40 years. And we have it now.”

Jon Laramore, executive director of Indiana Legal Services which receives funding from LSC, echoed Sandman.

“LSC has received strong bipartisan support from the legal community over the past few months, and I’m hopeful its funding will not be decreased in the 2018 or 2019 budgets,” Laramore said.

The Legal Services Corp. is the nation’s largest single funder of civil legal aid, distributing more than 94 percent of its funding to more than 800 offices across the country. Indiana Legal Services, which has eight offices around the Hoosier state, relies on LSC funding for at least 60 percent of its annual budget, according to LSC’s fiscal year 2019 budget request.

As part of its budget request, LSC is proposing boosting Indiana’s grant to $10.1 million.

LSC is asking for $564.8 million next fiscal year, a $37 million increase from the $527.8 million it has requested for fiscal year 2018. The extra funds would be used to ramp up the basic field grants given to all grantee organizations which, the agency contends, would enable those organizations to provide service for 50 percent more civil legal problems than they are currently able to handle. 

Pointing to the budget deal Congress passed Feb. 9, LSC board chair John Levi said the agency’s request for more money could be fulfilled. The budget agreement lifted the spending caps and designated $131 billion for domestic programs. 

“Our grantees in every congressional district across the country provide services to low-income Americans that go to the heart of their security and well-being — survivors of domestic violence seeking protections from their abusers, victims of natural disasters trying to obtain appropriate relief, veterans collecting benefits they have earned, the elderly protecting their assets from scams, and so much more,” Levi said. “With more money available for domestic spending in the budget deal reached (Feb. 9), we call on Congress to significantly increase LSC’s funding.”

In the wake of the President Donald Trump’s proposal last year to stop all funding to the LSC, people inside and outside of the legal community spoke against the move.

Separate letters signed by 160 law school deans, including all four from Indiana, and 197 business leaders, including those from the Hoosier companies of Cummins, Inc. and Salesforce, advocated for Congress to continue supporting of the agency. Also, 32 state attorneys general wrote a similar letter, but Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill did not join that effort.

The American Bar Association president Hilarie Bass is pushing back against the Trump administration’s renewed call for the elimination of funding.   

“In the fact of strong bipartisan agreement over the value of LSC’s important work, the administration’s second budget proposal to defund such services is unwarranted and should be dead on arrival,” Bass said in a statement. “…The vast unmet need for legal services nationwide argues for a funding increase for this important program. At a bare minimum, continued funding of the Legal Services Corporation is critical to fulfilling our nation’s promise of justice for all and equal justice under the law.”

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