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Maine Legal Service Providers Decry Federal Budget Cuts
04/27/2011   Reported By: Tom Porter

Recently-announced federal budget cutbacks are likely to mean hundreds of poor Mainers going without important legal help: That's the assessment of the director of one of the state's leading providers of free legal aid.

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Nan Heald heads Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a non-profit that provides free legal help to low-income Mainers in non-criminal cases, often involving foreclosures or domestic abuse.

Forty percent of the organization's $4.5 million budget, she says, comes in the form of federal funding, and for her, the $38 billion recently cut from this year's federal budget means a loss of $64,000 for Pine Tree.

"Which may not seem a lot when you look at size of our budget, but we're an organization that really prides itself on taking every dollar and maximizing the impact of that, and so conversely when you lose a dollar, the impact is pretty great," she says.

With the average assistance for each case amounting to about $500, Heald estimates the federal cutbacks will affect around 125 Maine families this year.

"Pine Tree has been a tremendous help," says Paula Golder from York County, one Mainer who's relied on Pine Tree's help in the past. "I've actually used them for a protection order in a case with my daughter, and they were a tremendous help to me, led us in the right direction and provided us legal help that, as a single mom before, I would never have been able to afford."

Golder is also relying on Pine Tree's help in an ongoing legal case involving her son, to try and ensure he gets the special educational help that she says he needs. "I think it's horrible that they want to keep cutting the budget, for many things, especially the children's program. There are so many kids out there that need a voice."

The looming budget cuts come during already tough times, says Pine Tree director Nan Heald, with barely one in five of all requests for help being met.

"In the month of February alone, just in the Portland office, we actually looked at our voicemail records and saw about 500 people that tried to get help from us, 300 people that left messages on our voicemail system, and 115 people that we were able to actually accept as clients," Heald says.

The federal cuts, she says, are also going to mean the loss of almost $8,000 for Pine Tree's Volunteer Lawyers project, in which lawyers give their time for free to help low-income Mainers in all parts of the state.

For Calien Lewis the situation is nothing short of a tragedy for many of the state's needier citizens, "for the simple reason that as the ability of legal services to provide assistance drops, their need for services are going up."

Lewis is director of the Maine Bar Foundation, a non-profit that acts as the philanthropic arm of the state's private bar. "It is almost a 'twofer,' if you follow me--it's a double whammy, because as the economy sours, foreclosures increase and aggressive debt collection increases, and family violence increases," she says. "You need legal advice, and sometimes full representation, in order to sort that out and manage it."

The Maine Bar Foundation is funded by the interest on lawyers' trust accounts, and for the past two years has dipped into its reserve funds to help out legal service providers like Pine Tree. Lewis says the foundation will be unable to provide the organization with any additional financial help this year, even though its need will be greater.

While Lewis sees the federal cuts as a tragedy, others regard them as a necessary evil. "There is going to be pain, and there's going to be pain especially in Maine because Maine disproportionately relies on federal funds in a whole host of programs," says Scott Moody, an economist with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a fiscally conservative adovcacy group.

"These federal cuts are certainly going to be painful, but they're also necessary," Moody says. "The federal government is running historically large federal budget deficits, Standard and Poors has recently come out and threatened to downgrade the national credit rating because our deficits not only are so large, but there doesn't seem to any hope of resolution any time soon."

For Nan Heald of Pine Tree Legal however, cutting back on her organization's budget is a false economy because providing needy Mainers with neceesary legal help now, she says, saves money in the long run.
She points out, for example, that their Volunteer Lawyers Project generates $2 in legal services for every dollar spent.


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