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Government & Politics

Senate Sends Access to Counsel in Evictions Funding Measure to House

Eviction
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Maryland’s Senate unanimously passed one of several measures meant to fund the state’s access to counsel program for low-income tenants facing evictions, Thursday.

Although lawmakers passed legislation last year to set up access to legal representation for those tenants through the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, which is the state’s largest funder of civil legal aid, a separate measure that would’ve raised court fees to pay for it failed to pass before the end of the 2021 legislative session.

Senate Bill 279, introduced by Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), would allow funds that the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division receives from “any settlement, agreement, or judgment related to an investigation or enforcement of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA) for an unfair, abusive, or deceptive trade practice regarding residential rental property” to be used by the Access to Counsel in Evictions Special Fund.

Money received by the aggrieved party and the attorney general’s costs for each settlement, agreement or judgment are excluded from going to the special fund under the bill.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) cross-filed the measure, as House Bill 571, but it has not yet advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill is just one of several pieces of legislation meant to fund the access to counsel program.

Senate Bill 521, also introduced by Hettleman and cross-filed as House Bill 712 by Rosenberg, would send federal rental assistance money to the fund.

That legislation stipulates that for the 2023 fiscal year, if the governor appropriates federal rental assistance funds through an amendment, the maximum amount that can be used for legal representation must be sent to the Access to Counsel in Evictions Special Fund.

And for the 2024 fiscal year and onward, the governor would be required send the maximum amount of federal rental assistance that can be used for legal representation to the Access to Counsel in Evictions Special Fund that is “available to the state but unappropriated or anticipated to be received by the state before the end of the fiscal year for which the appropriation is proposed.”

Neither of those bills to move federal rental assistance to the fund has advanced out of House or Senate committees.

Senate Bill 662, introduced Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery) would require that, for the 2023 fiscal year only, the comptroller distribute $11.8 million from the state’s unclaimed property fund to the Access to Counsel in Evictions Special Fund. That legislation was cross-filed as House Bill 724 by Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s County’s). Neither the Senate nor the House version of that bill has advanced out of committee.

The Maryland Judiciary indicated in a February report to the Senate Budget and Taxation that more than $6 million in additional funds are needed to fund the first year of the program.

“The Department of Housing and Community Development has indicated that it will provide the fund with $5.4 million in fiscal 2023,” the report reads. “In addition to those funds, [the Maryland Legal Services Corporation] retains $2.2 million in Deutsche Bank settlement funds that it plans to use in fiscal 2022 to 2024 to support Access to Counsel in Evictions program infrastructure. A total of $6.4 million in additional funds would be needed to fully fund Year 1 of the program.”