A bill to save Virginia's legal aid programs from the extinction threatened by the Reagan budget proposals emerged intact from a key committee today and headed for a final vote in the state Senate.
The vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee was a critical victory for Legal Services lobbyists who fear that, without state support, poor people in Virginia might be deprived of free legal help on family law, housing, consumer and other civil issues.
"If Legal Services went, there would be nobody in a postion to fill in for them--nobody," said Judy Goldberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, which joined a coalition of groups--including the Virginia State Bar--in backing the bill.
The Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, which in 1980 handled 29,000 civil cases, has already lost 25 percent of its $6.2 million budget as a result of state and federal budget cuts. The entire program would be eliminated later this year if Congress adopts Reagan's current budget proposal.
The bill approved today by a 9-to-5 vote in committee would fund a limited legal services program with $1.5 million annually by raising filing fees in civil court cases. The proposal would increase filing costs in general district courts from $5 to $7 and add another $3 to the graduated scale of circuit court costs.
That would not be enough to bring the legal services program back to its original levels, said director Jack Davis. The program has already lost about 50 of its 300 staff members and expects to lay off another 25 by July 1, he said.
Several senators today objected to raising court fees to fund legal services, particularly since the General Assembly has already approved legislation raising General District Court fees $2 to pay for administrative court costs.
"This is coming from the wrong people," said Sen. Frederick T. Gray (D-Chesterfield), "I don't think litigants should pay. I believe the programs need money but we're reaching into the wrong pockets to get it."
The committee today adopted a "sunset" amendment to the bill that would automatically cancel the fee increases in 1984, giving the state enough time to find more appropriate funding sources for the program.
Del. William Robinson (D-Norfolk), sponsor of the bill, said he will still push for money from the state budget this year. But, he said, "I fear if we don't get this bill, it will be difficult to get serious consideration for a budget amendment."
Robinson said he expects Gov. Charles S. Robb to be sympathetic to the measure. "I can't believe he wouldn't be sympathetic since it helps poor people and poor people helped put him where he is," Robinson said.