May 18, 2011 – The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) has voted to approve Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate all state funding for indigent civil legal needs in the 2011-13 biennial budget (Assembly Bill 40 and Senate Bill 27).
Meeting on Thursday, May 12, 2011, the Republican-controlled committee voted 12-3 to zero out state funding for the program.
The removal of this funding again will rank Wisconsin behind all other states except Idaho, which is the only other state that does not support civil legal needs with any state dollars. The State Bar of Wisconsin has long advocated for adequate state funding to provide assistance for civil legal services to those in need.
Currently, more than $5 million is generated through a dedicated $4 filing surcharge coming from the justice information system. The surcharge is generally assessed with a court fee at the commencement or filing of certain court proceedings.
The $21.50 justice information surcharge funds a number of critical court and justice related programs, including the district attorney information technology program (DA IT), the circuit court automation program (CCAP), and the treatment, alternatives and diversion (TAD) grant program at the Office of Justice Assistance.
The current funding for the civil legal needs program is appropriated to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WisTAF), which disperses the money received as grants to programs that provide civil legal services to indigent persons. The state appropriation is combined with a $50 annual assessment on all active lawyers and interest earned on attorney’s trust accounts.
In 2010, more than $3.8 million from these sources was dispersed as grants to various statewide recipients. In a report to the Department of Administration in 2010, WisTAF reported that more than 8,400 individuals were served during their reporting period. WisTAF also indicated that attorneys representing these clients were able to recover $22,240,700 in awards.
Most of these awards were recovered from predatory lending practices and wrongful denials of private health insurance benefits.
Prior to approving the proposed elimination of the state funding, committee Democrats presented a proposal to preserve the program but reduce its funding to $1 million annually. The committee rejected that proposal on a 4-12 party-line vote.
As approved by the JFC, Gov. Walker’s proposal will reshape the programs funded under the justice information system surcharge. Programs like the DA IT, CCAP, and TAD will also see varying funding reductions.
Another significant change in the fee structure is the proposal to lapse and transfer more than $3 million of the surcharge revenue into the state’s general fund. Like the funding for civil legal needs, JFC also eliminated money for traffic stop data collection to study the extent of racial profiling in Wisconsin.
Proposal for district attorney pay progression also modified
In addition to eliminating funding for indigent civil legal needs, the JFC also modified extensively a provision Gov. Walker proposed in the budget bill to provide pay progression for assistant district attorneys (ADAs). Gov. Walker had proposed using $1 million annually from the justice information surcharge to fund a pay progression plan worked out by district attorneys and the Office of State Employment Relations (OSER).
Instead, the committee eliminated this proposal and proposed that during the 2011-13 biennium, district attorneys would be allowed to retain the base funding for ADAs who have retired. Under the JFC proposal, the difference between the salaries of attorneys who retire and those of the new attorneys who replace them will be used to fund a pay progression plan.
The plan can use savings from retirements that occurred on or after Jan. 1, 2011. The union representing the ADAs, the Association of State Prosecutors, and OSER are to submit a pay progression plan to JFC by Sept. 30, 2011.
The State Bar supports a proposal to provide increased compensation to ADAs. For years, district attorney offices have incurred turnover from ADAs that leave the profession due to low compensation rates. The lack of pay progression causes an immense amount of strain on district attorney offices when they are forced to replace and train new ADAs.
The approval of pay progression is a step in the right direction in acknowledging the dedicated service and accumulated expertise that ADAs provide to the state.
Another program receiving funding in the committee version of the budget is an increase in payments for court interpreters, which the State Bar supports.
“Chiropractors’ preference” inserted into budget
On May 12, the JFC also approved on a 12-4 party-line vote a proposal by the Republican co-chairs of the committee, Rep. Robin Vos and Sen. Alberta Darling, to insert a so-called “chiropractors’ preference” provision into the budget.
Under the provision, attorneys for the victims of motor vehicle accidents will be financially liable for fees for chiropractic services resulting from the accident that have not been paid by the victim. Subject to certain requirements, such fees will be deducted from the attorney’s contingency fee payment. The provision would not apply to chiropractic fees payable by health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, or that have otherwise been paid. Chiropractors would be required to notify the victim’s attorney in writing of the outstanding fees prior to settlement.
The JFC will continue to review and modify Gov. Walker’s proposed budget throughout the month of May. Upon completion of the JFC’s work on the budget, it is anticipated that the Senate and Assembly will vote on the bill by mid-June.
Legislative leaders have indicated that their goal is to review and vote on the $59 billion biennial budget before July 1, 2011, the start of the next fiscal cycle.
The State Bar Government Relations Department will follow all the developments on this issue and other state budget provisions. Please monitor WisBar.org and visit the State Bar’s Government Relations page for updated information.