Baker signs budget to pay lawyers for indigent

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Many summers, attorney David Culliton and his wife feel the pinch: As the fiscal year ends, the state often runs out of money to pay them for their work representing indigent clients — until a supplementary budget can be passed.

Lengthy summer trips are out. “You’d be an idiot to try,” he said.

But this year, he and his wife, also a lawyer, were waiting on about $8,000, and they were worried about their mortgage.


“We were thinking, ‘All right, what are we going [to] do?’ ” he said. “We’re not fat cats. We’re just barely getting by.”

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But he and thousands of other lawyers across Massachusetts got good news Friday: The money is coming.

Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday signed a supplemental budget with money for private attorneys who represent indigent clients in criminal and some civil litigation, including guardianships, classifications by the Sex Offender Registry, and children in need of services in juvenile courts.

The attorneys have gone without pay for several weeks while a supplemental budget for Committee for Public Counsel Services to cover expenses from the last fiscal year made its way through Beacon Hill lawmakers and onto Baker’s desk, attorneys said.

The CPCS is the state public defender agency and has a cluster of full-time staff attorneys sprinkled across the state, but it relies more heavily on some 3,000 private lawyers who agree to be paid fees that are generally less than what they would charge for private clients.


Ordinarily, the governor initiates the year-end supplemental budget, said Mara Dolan, communications director for Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg. But by last Thursday, Baker had not done so, she said, so the Legislature initiated the process; Baker filed his supplementary budget later that day. Then, she said, Baker had the supplemental budget on his desk for a week before he signed it.

Baker’s office “has repeatedly filed to appropriately fund CPCS in its budget proposals,” said Dominick Ianno, chief of staff with the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

An official with the Baker administration said the governor’s office had funded CPCS in its initial budget proposal in the spring of 2015 and again in a supplemental budget in February. Another official noted that Baker has 10 days to review and act upon any legislation on his desk.

The delays have created serious financial strains for many attorneys who concentrate their practices on representing indigent clients, lawyers said Friday. One attorney who asked not be named said he is owed $12,000 that he needs to pay his bills.

But CPCS Friday circulated an e-mail announcing $14.2 million is now in the pipeline to pay outstanding bills from fiscal 2016.


“We understand the frustration and concern this delay has caused for many of you, and because of this we will work as quickly as possible to pay your outstanding FY 2016 bills,’’ the committee noted in the e-mail.

Baker signed the supplemental budget shortly after being questioned Thursday afternoon about the issue on a radio show. A woman called WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to grill Baker.

“Why is it that every single year, the Legislature has to vote on a supplemental budget to cover these costs?” the woman asked Baker. “I mean, it’s a constitutional right for poor people to have representation.”

She said the state owes her family more than $6,000, and they could not pay their bills.

“I was thinking of sending you a bill to cover the late fees and interest charges that we’re incurring,” she said on the radio show.

Baker said the woman was raising “an absolutely legitimate point” and promised to try to get the supplemental passed before the end of the month. He also said a supplemental budget for about $30 million has already been filed for fiscal 2017, in hopes that it would pass early, and payments could be made regularly throughout the year.

“This is a huge issue and a big problem,” he said. “I apologize on behalf of the Commonwealth.’’

Evan Allen can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. John R. Ellement can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.