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With revenues crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland’s largest funder of civil legal aid is facing “significant” cuts to its grants.

The Maryland Legal Services Corporation, or MLSC, announced Monday it expects revenue to be down roughly $10 million for the fiscal year that began in July.

The organization, which provides grants for civil legal aid for low-income residents, might have to reduce its grants for the upcoming year.

The MLSC gets its money from surcharges on certain court filing fees and interest on lawyer trust accounts. Filing fees plummeted after Maryland courts were forced to shutter in March, with surcharges in July and August halving compared to those same months in 2019. MLSC officials expect filing fee revenues to be down $4.8 million compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Interest on lawyer trust accounts, a program that raises money for various charitable purposes and helps fund the MLSC, has also suffered from cuts to interest rates. The program mostly relies on interest to generate revenue. With rates near 0% and “expected to remain rock-bottom for the foreseeable future,” MLSC expects to see a $5 million drop in funding this year, according to an MLSC news release.

Deb Seltzer, the corporation’s deputy director, said the cuts would likely impact some of Maryland’s most vulnerable residents. She said the majority of the organization’s grants go toward representing clients who otherwise might not be able to afford a lawyer. MLSC’s grantees have to use the funding to help people with less than half of Maryland’s median income.

“We would anticipate that that number has grown pretty significantly because of layoffs,” Seltzer said. “And it was already a very large portion of the population … Around 22% [of Marylanders] were already eligible even before the pandemic.”

MLSC officials already cut 9% of its funding at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Seltzer noted that the cuts come at a time when Marylanders need legal services more than ever, since the pandemic is exacerbating already-existing issues like a lack of affordable housing.

“Having a lawyer by your side, an advocate who knows how the system works, can make a huge difference,” Seltzer said.

Advocates have warned that a recent Centers for Disease Control stay on certain evictions won’t prevent landlords from filing new cases. The CDC order prevents evictions for tenants who meet certain criteria like income requirements ― but renters will need to head to court to prove they qualify for protection.

The vast majority of tenants lack representation in eviction cases, a recent study by Chicago-based consulting firm Stout found. About 96% of landlords have legal representation during eviction cases, but only 1% of renters do, according to the study. Stout estimates that more than 270,000 Marylanders have lost income due to COVID-19, and could be at risk of eviction.

MLSC doesn’t just fund grantees who represent clients in eviction cases: The corporation’s grantees also include Senior Legal Services, which provides legal advice and counseling to seniors in the Baltimore area, and the Sexual Assault Legal Institute, which provides “holistic legal assistance” for survivors of sexual violence.

Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), who previously sponsored a bill that increased funding to the MLSC, said he might introduce legislation to help the corporation during the next legislative session. Guzzone, who heads the Senate Budget Taxation Committee, said he and other legislators previously asked the state Department of Budget and Management to provide more relief funding to the MLSC, but to no avail.

“We’ve been having discussions for several months now about the upcoming problem, and it only seems to have gotten worse,” Guzzone said.

Guzzone said he asked budget officials to use some of Maryland’s COVID-19 relief funding to help the MLSC, but officials said they didn’t have any to spare.

State officials have already spent more than 90% of the $1.653 billion allocated to Maryland as part of the Congressional Coronavirus Relief Fund, Department of Budget and Management Secretary David R. Brinkley told lawmakers last week. Officials are holding back $117 million of that money in case a second wave of the virus rocks the country this winter.

Guzzone’s 2017 bill increased the amount of the abandoned property fund that the MLSC gets every year, and he may look at trying to raise that figure again. In 2017, legislators increased MLSC’s share of the fund from $1.5 million to $2 million. But Guzzone noted that his hands will mostly be tied until the legislature reconvenes next year.

“What we can do right now as legislators is be advocates,” Guzzone said. “That’s where I see my role. And as we move into the session … I am sure that I will have some form of legislation to help support their efforts, hopefully at a sustainable level.”

News Source: wtop.com

Tags: coronavirus evictions legal help maryland general assembly

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Trump Administration Announces $13 Billion In Additional Aid To Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/CNN) — The Trump administration on Friday announced $13 billion in additional aid to Puerto Rico to help with rebuilding in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced tweeted Friday morning that Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Pete Gaynor told her that $13 billion has been approved. She thanked the White House and President Donald Trump.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany touted the $13 billion FEMA award as two of the agency’s “largest grants ever” in a statement.

It will include an $11.6 billion federal share of funding for the projects.

In the three years since the storm made landfall, the rebuilding process has been slow and costly. In November 2018, White House officials told congressional leaders and appropriators that the President did not want any additional relief funding sent to the island.

The government’s $13 billion investment will directly address electrical and educational systems, McEnany’s statement said.

“Federal funding of $9.6 billion will allow the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority to repair and replace thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines, electrical substations, power generation systems, office buildings and make other grid improvements.

The $2 billion grant for the Puerto Rico Department of Education will focus on restoring school buildings and educational facilities across the island,” McEnany said.

The grants, she added, “exceed the total Public Assistance funding in any single federally-declared disaster other than Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.”

Trump’s handling of the 2017 storm, which devastated the island and killed nearly 3,000 people in its aftermath, has been widely criticized by locals and experts.

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Trump has consistently denied any fault for his administration, and has instead sought praise for his handling of Hurricane Maria, at one point calling it “an incredible, unsung success.”

The move is likely an attempt to appeal to Puerto Rican voters who moved to the battleground state of Florida after the hurricane struck the US territory.

Trump was lambasted for his visit to Puerto Rico weeks after the storm, where he was pictured tossing paper towels to a crowd of survivors.

Since then, he’s publicly slammed local officials, falsely railed against what he said was an overreported death toll, and questioned aid to the territory. Former acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who was in the role as the hurricane hit, said in a July interview that Trump considered the idea of selling the island after the storm hit.

Tensions between the President and the island boiled over in March 2019 when then-Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló fired back after the White House officials warned his top aides that representatives of the territory were pushing too hard to arrange a meeting with the President aimed at discussing the island’s dire situation.

“If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth,” Rosselló told CNN at the time. “It would be a mistake to confuse courtesy with courage.”

And as Hurricane Dorian approached Puerto Rico in August 2019, Trump again trained his ire at its government.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!” he wrote, adding, “And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!”

Trump’s lack of empathy for Puerto Ricans has been at odds with his treatment of storm victims in the continental US during his tenure in office, prompting criticism of racism, including from some local officials defending their home.

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