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O’Malley signs filing-fee surcharge bill

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law a measure extending surcharges on filing fees in civil cases until June 30, 2018, securing a revenue source that provides about $6 million annually for legal services to low-income Marylanders.

Without O’Malley’s signature on Tuesday, the funding source for the Maryland Legal Services Corp. would have ended this June.

The governor also is expected to sign legislation the General Assembly passed on Monday to earmark $1.5 million annually for MLSC from the state’s Abandoned Property Fund. That triples the corporation’s current share of $500,000, set nearly three decades ago.

MLSC Executive Director Susan M. Erlichman praised both measures, saying they will prevent 5 percent across-the-board cuts in its grants to the legal-services agencies MLSC helps to fund.

Maryland Legal Aid, which receives $11 million of its $25 million annual revenues from MLSC, also hailed the legislative response.

“At a time of the most need, lawmakers of Maryland stepped up to the plate to demonstrate their strong commitment to access to justice,” said Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., Legal Aid’s executive director.

Lisae C. Jordan, founding director of the Sexual Assault Legal Institute, said the measures will save her from having to lay off staff.

“MLSC is one of our only sources of funding to help victims of child sexual abuse,” Jordan said.

The bills followed Erlichman’s announcement in January that the agency would suffer a 40 percent decline in revenue if the surcharge were allowed to expire.

Legal services historically relied on funding from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts. But with interest rates hovering at an anemic 0.25 percent for several years, IOLTA funding now accounts for $1.8 million, or 12 percent, of MLSC revenues, Erlichman said.

In 2010, when IOLTA revenues fell from $7 million to $2.3 million, the General Assembly responded by increasing the surcharge on circuit court filings by $30, district court filings by $8 and summary ejectments by $3, with the additional money going to MLSC.

However, the 2010 surcharge had a sunset date of June 30, 2013, as lawmakers erroneously predicted that interest rates would increase by then.