By ZACH PLUHACEK / Lincoln Journal Star

A bill to raise state court fees by $1 would provide much-needed funding for Legal Aid of Nebraska, supporters said Wednesday.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who sponsored the legislative measure (LB1098), says it would raise an extra $355,000 a year for the nonprofit law firm that provides free legal help to low-income people in non-criminal cases.

Seven in 10 low-income Nebraskans deal with a significant legal issue each year, Morfeld said.

“If left unresolved, these problems can multiply and fester, tearing families apart and driving people into deeper poverty,” said David Piester, president of the board for Legal Aid of Nebraska.

The Nebraska State Bar Association also supported the bill. While it doesn’t normally back court fee hikes, Executive Director Liz Neeley said in this case the increase would directly improve access to the courts for people struggling with problems like home foreclosures and child custody issues.

The only opponent represented a state debt collectors organization.

“There are downsides to an increase in court costs,” said Grand Island attorney Tessa Hermanson, testifying on behalf of the Nebraska Collectors Association.

She said there are better ways to boost Legal Aid funding, like appropriating money from the state’s general fund.

Her comments drew sharp questioning from Judiciary Committee member Matt Williams, a state senator from Gothenburg, who asked how a $1 increase in court fees would prove prohibitive for those trying to collect on $300 medical bills.

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