Houston Press | By Kimberly Reeves
Margarita Sanchez stood at the front of the room at the Capitol, quiet and small, talking about the moment she woke up in a hospital with nowhere to turn.
Sanchez's husband had stabbed her, the last in a long line of humiliations that ranged from forcing her to quit her job to killing her dog to attacking her more than once with a knife. The last thing Sanchez remembered after her husband stabbed her, before she lost consciousness, was him waving divorce papers at her.
For Sanchez, the answer was Legal Aid, which comes from a small pot of money the Texas Attorney General's office puts aside each year. Sanchez was one of hundreds who have benefited from the program, a necessity in her case before her husband was released from jail and capable of retaliation.
"If I had not been given a free attorney, I don't know if I would be here today," Sanchez said, reading from notes she had prepared for a news conference.
Legal aid, despite its altruistic purposes, often faces a rough road at the Capitol. That was especially true last session, when the smallest expenditures in sight were being scrubbed from the budget. It was only the heroic last-minute efforts of county-attorney-turned state Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who restored the modest $10 million to be used for legal aid services.
The $10 million that filled the legal aid coffer comes from fees and fines, plus settlements out of the attorney general's office. The legislation filed this session, companion bills House Bill 1445 and Senate 635, would lift the cap to $50 million. That, of course, would be a five-fold increase in the program's funding.
Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht has championed the legal aid issue, this session with the help of Houston Reps. Sefronia Thompson and Sarah Davis in the lower chamber and Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock in the upper chamber.
At a news conference this morning, Hecht estimated only one in five people who need legal aid can be funded under the current cap. Lifting the cap for additional fees and fines that might come to the office could help enormously. Fees and penalties will not be raised under the bills.
"We need it to be a lot higher. Funding is going to go down this year and the next two years, almost no matter what, as it has been. But times are hard. We recognize that," Hecht said. "We're trying to present a reasonable position to the legislature which they've responded to. But could we use more money? Oh, yes."
Davis, a Republican, called legal aid an issue that crossed party lines. As a freshman lawmaker, Davis heard one woman testify in committee that she once had money, but her assets had been frozen in a nasty divorce. Davis, who learned the woman was one of her constituents, credited legal aid with saving her life.