Bryan P. Sears//March 7, 2016
//March 7, 2016
ANNAPOLIS — Lawmakers and others expressed concerns for several fee reductions proposed by the governor, including one that helps law students pay their student loans in return for service to low-income and underserved populations.
The reductions, which need legislative approval, include cuts to fees for licenses, including handgun qualifications, home improvement licenses, birth and death certificates and other items set in statute. They would total about $100 million over five years.
The reduction of the fee from $100 to $25 for out-of-state lawyers seeking to practice in Maryland is part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal. State officials say the bill would lower fees to take in just what each agency needs to administer each respective program, but others expressed concern that the changes could jeopardize funds such as the Janet L. Hoffman Loan Assistance Repayment Program.
Jade McDuffie, a third-year student at the University of Maryland School of Law who plans to graduate this spring, said the loan program goes to helping offset the cost of education of social workers, nurses and lawyers who focus on the disadvantaged.
“By cutting any funding that goes to loan assistance repayment, that discourages professionals from entering fields where, while they make a huge impact, they aren’t paid for their impact as much as they should be,” McDuffie said. “Many of these professionals rely on these loan assistance repayment programs so that they don’t worry about putting food on their own tables while also helping out the community.”
McDuffie said the program was part of her decision-making process because she knew she wanted to work in public service.
“While you can say that many of these other students can choose higher paying jobs, can work in those big firm jobs where they make a lot of money, for some of us, that isn’t our passion. That’s not what we choose to do. For me, I chose to be a lawyer to help low-income and underrepresented people here in Maryland. Without a loan assistance repayment program, I’d have to worry about paying back huge amounts of student loan debt while working long hours and not seeking much compensation for that work.”
Three-quarters of the $100 fee goes to the loan assistance program.
But State Budget Secretary David Brinkley told the House Ways and Means Committee Monday that the reduction to $25 is in line with what other states charge Maryland attorneys. He said the reduction will not result in an elimination of the $1.4 million assistance program.
The fee annually underperforms estimates, generating just $45,000 of the $75,000 expected each year. That amount of money lost in the reduction would be offset by money from the state’s general fund, Brinkley said.
Brinkley said the requested cuts “accurately reflect the costs of delivering these services” and said in the past the funds have been used to create a slush fund used for purposes other than those intended by Democratic former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
But some question the need for such reductions.
“Considering how much the hourly rates are that attorneys are paid, I don’t think they’ll be hurt by this,” said Del. Frank S. Turner, D-Howard County and vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee.
Other proposed fee reductions drew concerns from legislators.
Del. Mary L. Washington raised concerns about the fate of special funds within Medicaid that would lose money with the reduction in fees for birth and death certificates. She said the higher fees were needed to offset costs to the poor.
“Just like any household, you have members who make a little more or a little less so that those who make a little more cover the expenses of the others in the household,” said Washington, D-Baltimore City and a committee member.
Washington asked from where the additional money would come.
But Hogan officials said the current higher fee offsets the costs of obtaining a birth or death certificate. Reducing the fee to a cost equal to the subsidized rate would have no adverse effect and limit the amount of money gathering in what Brinkley said were pockets of slush funds.
“The justification for the fees at those levels is to cover the cost of administering the programs,” Brinkley said. “We’re not looking to harvest monies, move monies around. We’re certainly not interested in trying to maintain surpluses from year to year. We truly want them to be responsive to the needs of the services that have to be delivered at that time.”P