Legal-aid to close its lobbying arm at State Capitol

Rafie Podolsky testifying at the legislature.

CT-N

Rafie Podolsky testifying at the legislature.

The longest sustained funding crunch in the history of legal aid is about to cost Connecticut’s poor their long-serving lobbyist at the General Assembly: Raphael L. “Rafie” Podolsky, a Yale-educated lawyer who took them as a client 40 years ago, is getting a pink slip.

The state’s three major legal-aid groups are closing the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut, the agency they jointly fund for lobbying and a wide range of education and community outreach on behalf of the poor.

“Basically, our reserve is gone. We’ve been running deficits,” said Steven D. Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, which recently saw its revenue projections fall. “When we plugged those numbers into our budget, something had to give.”

Jane McNichol, the executive director of LARC, as the resource center is known, and Sara Parker McKernan, who both have law degrees and lobby for the center, also will lose their jobs. McNichol, considered an expert on welfare policy, declined to comment, as did Podolsky.

Others were less reticent.

“In many ways, they are the conscience of the legislature,” said Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, the first-year co-chair of the Banking Committee. “Removing LARC would remove the one consistent public eye on what’s going on in our committee.”

“I think it’s a devastating loss,” said Jeffrey Freiser, the former director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition, which often relied on the resource center’s staff. “Everybody knows the well-heeled have an army of lobbyists. The loss of LARC, the scales will be that much more unbalanced.”

They lobbied and often shaped legislation on social services, foreclosures, overdraft fees at banks, lenders that prey on the poor, affordable housing appeals, hospital billing practices, evictions, and security deposits.

Over his four decades, Podolsky’s advocacy for the poor also served the broader population of consumers. He often was the only lobbyist representing the general public on banking issues, especially when the industry began to consolidate.

“He understood the law so well on the Banking Committee. We had a bunch of bankers — and we had him,” said Thomas D. Ritter, a former banking co-chair and House speaker.

Podolsky’s longevity is measured by the Ritter family. He lobbied three generations of Ritters: Tom’s father, George, was a legislator when Podolsky arrived in Hartford, and his son Matt, now is House co-chair of the Public Health Committee.

“You have nothing but appreciation and respect for someone who spends their entire life fighting for people who need someone to fight for them,” Matt Ritter said.

“Just by his passion and who he represented, he got in any room he wanted, and people listened to him because he’s so smart and hard working,” Tom Ritter said. “Anybody can say it’s a bad bill, a good bill. A skillful person helps both sides.”

Lesser said Podolsky has played the role of an honest broker for him. Lesser feared that a law sought by the banking industry was anti-consumer, but he let it out of the Banking Committee only after Podolsky analyzed the measure and assured him it was not.

Originally an employee of Connecticut Legal Services, Podolsky has been an employee of LARC since 1992, when it was created as legal-aid’s lobbying and educational arm.

The decision to close the center was made last month by its board, the three directors of the state’s legal-aid agencies: Eppler-Epstein, of Connecticut Legal Services; Jamey Bell, of Greater Hartford Legal Aid; and Susan Garcia Nofi, of New Haven Legal Assistance Association.

Jane McNichol, executive director the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut, speaks at the Republican forum on tax increase proposals.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Jane McNichol, executive director the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut, addressing legislators in 2015.

J.L. Pottenger Jr., a Yale law professor and former chairman of New Haven legal aid’s board, said he knows and respects the three directors as committed to serving the needy, but they should have consulted a wider circle before voting to close the center.

“I’m unhappy about the process, and I’m unhappy about the result,” Pottenger said.

Legal-aid funding seemingly stabilized 25 years ago when the legislature passed a bill appropriating interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, or “IOLTA.” Lawyers briefly hold client funds, often for real-estate closings, in trust accounts.

The funds collectively earned millions of dollars in interest, but it was impractical for lawyers to calculate how much money hundreds of clients were due individually. With the lawyers and their clients not collecting the interest, the banks agreed to forfeit the money to the Connecticut Bar Foundation to fund legal-aid services.

In 2007, the program generated nearly $21 million for legal aid, but it’s fallen by a dizzying 90 percent since the recession of 2008 slowed real-estate transactions and drove down interest rates.

“At this point, IOLTA is coming in at a rate of about $2 million a year,” Eppler-Epstein said.

Eppler-Epstein and Bell said the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government responded by agreeing to create a new revenue stream: fees on civil court filings, $125 in most cases and as high as $600 for an out-of-state lawyer to be temporarily admitted in Connecticut.

“That was terrific. It made a difference,” Bell said. “In the past year, and more significantly in the past couple of months, that also has been significantly down. We’re not sure exactly why.”

The Connecticut Bar Foundation had expected to collect $6.4 million in court fees in the first half of 2015. Instead, the fund generated only $5.5 million, Eppler-Epstein said.

“We had three terrible choices,” he said.

One was to ignore the shortfall and hope for improvement, a course that could lead legal-aid to temporarily shut its doors if more revenue didn’t materialize. Another was to lay off staff lawyers who provide direct legal services to the poor. The third was to close LARC.

Bell and Eppler-Epstein said they decided the loss of LARC could be partly mitigated by the continue use of its contract lobbyists, Betty Gallo and Kate Robinson, and using other legal-aid lawyers, who now occasionally provide reports and testimony to the legislature.

Further cuts in direct services would have been too damaging after a series of previous belt-tightenings, they said. Staff at Connecticut Legal Services takes three unpaid furlough days every month. New Haven laid off three staffers this year, while Greater Hartford cut staff last year.

Connecticut Legal Services, which serves all of the state outside the Hartford and New Haven areas and is the largest of the legal aid groups, contributes $365,000 annually to LARC. Even with the closing, the agency is running a $300,000 deficit, Eppler-Epstein said.

He said the funding for legal aid always has had its peaks and valleys, but the current crisis has been the longest in its history, raising a question:

What degree of services is sustainable?

Eppler-Epstein gave three answers.

“One answer is we still have a deficit. If everything stays the way it is now, we’re going to have to continue getting smaller,” he said.

Another is help from government. Chase T. Rogers, the chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, announced at a Connecticut Bar Association Conference she would work next year with the General Assembly to find ways to provide better access to the justice system.

“The third is that, at some point interest rates have to go up,” Eppler-Epstein said. “So we are hoping one of those developments happens soon enough, so we don’t have to keep shrinking the legal aid network.”

 

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