By State Representative, Leon D. Young
The State Assembly met in both regular and special session earlier this week and debated a sundry of bills that ranged from proposals that dealt with opioid addiction to high capacity wells. However, in this morass of legislative initiatives, I found two bills of note and importance to residents in our community. The first bill Assembly Bill 115, which encourages (but does not require) state agencies (DOA, DHS, DCF, and DOJ) to allocate any federal block grant funds that they administer to provide civil legal aid to qualified individuals, if the grant is intended to benefit low-income, indigent, vulnerable, or at-risk populations and the use is permitted by federal law. The second bill that caught my eye was Assembly Bill 116 that creates an interagency legal aid coordinating council for facilitating discussion among various stakeholders, including state agencies, about how access to civil legal services may serve or further the missions, responsibilities and goals of the agencies.
The aforementioned legislation is the result of a unanimous request from the State Supreme Court, in which the seven justices asked the Legislative Council to initiate a comprehensive, no-holds-barred study of how to provide civil legal services to people who cannot afford them. Moreover, state funding for Wisconsin’s civil legal services programs helps low-income individuals, and families who cannot help themselves due to illness, age, abuse, disability or the complexity of their problem. The people this legislation is intended to serve are:
• Victims of domestic violence and others who need protection from abuse
• Facing the loss of their homes due to illegal evictions and foreclosure
• Seniors who want to live in dignity and security
• Disabled residents who need protection and advice
• Families with health and disability issues
• Veterans and service members who need a little extra help
• Children and families trying to rebuild their lives
Both bills were subsequently passed by the Assembly and immediately messaged to the Senate for consideration. The fact that the state is now attempting to codify a process that may provide civil legal services to indigent and disabled residents is good public policy, and is desperately needed. With it’s important to remember that these initiatives only “encourage” agency heads to do the right thing. State funding for civil legal services in Wisconsin should be a right, and not just a privilege that’s afforded to the wealthy.