March 4, 2011 – While posing difficult challenges to Wisconsin’s justice system, Governor Scott Walker’s proposed biennial state budget also contains several initiatives the State Bar of Wisconsin supports.
Legislative leaders introduced the budget at Gov. Walker’s request on March 1, 2011. Among the measures in the budget bills – Assembly Bill 40 and Senate Bill 27 – are provisions that:
Provide funding for 45 new positions at the State Public Defender (SPD) to handle the workload generated by increased eligibility standards under 2009 Wisconsin Act 164;
Increase funding by $3.4 million to help reduce the projected shortfall for the SPD private bar reimbursement appropriation;
Provide an additional $1 million in each year of the biennium for compensation payments to increase retention of experienced assistant district attorneys;
Increase biennial funding by $366,700 to reimburse counties for court interpreter services and mileage reimbursement paid to interpreters;
Continue funding of one staff person for the Judicial Council (the legislature restored funding for this position four years ago, after eliminating it in 1995).
Unfortunately, Gov. Walker’s budget proposes to eliminate all state funding for indigent civil legal needs and instead uses that money for increased compensation of prosecutors and increased court interpreter funding. The budget also eliminates sum-sufficient public financing for Wisconsin Supreme Court campaigns and makes that program dependent upon a voluntary income tax check-off.
When the previous Legislature enacted 2009 Wisconsin Act 164, which expanded financial eligibility for public defender representation from the antiquated 1987 Aid to Families with Dependent Children limits to current W-2 limits, it also authorized 45 new SPD staff positions to handle the anticipated increased caseload. Gov. Walker’s budget funds those new positions, which under Act 164 are created effective June 19, 2011.
In addition, Gov. Walker’s budget proposes increased funding to help fill the hole in the perennially under-funded SPD private bar appropriation, which has repeatedly run out of money during the first half of odd-numbered years. The budget bill increases the private bar appropriation by $3.4 million, which will not cover the entire shortfall. The SPD had requested $12.8 million to cover the shortfall.
In December 2010, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee authorized an additional $5.4 million toward the current budget’s estimated $9.5 million shortfall. Even with this additional money, the SPD is expected to run out of money to pay private bar bills in April 2011 and will not be able to pay again until the beginning of the next biennium on July 1, 2011. The remaining shortfall this year will be carried forward into the next biennium and added to the projected shortfall in 2013.
The State Bar’s Board of Governors has long-standing public policy positions in favor of both expanded SPD eligibility standards and adequate compensation of private bar attorneys who take SPD cases.
Gov. Walker’s proposed state budget also contains a provision that designates $1 million in each year of the biennium for compensation payments to increase retention of experienced assistant district attorneys, as determined by a distribution plan agreed to by the Department of Administration and the Office of State Employment Relations.
Unfortunately, the proposed state budget does not contain a similar compensation provision for SPD staff attorneys. As President Jim Boll recently stated, the State Bar supports adequate funding for both prosecutors and public defenders.
The budget bills also increase biennial funding to reimburse counties for court interpreter services by $366,700. The State Bar supports the continued funding of the court interpreter program.
Unfortunately, much of the additional money designated in the budget bills for prosecutors and court interpreters comes from the elimination of funding for two initiatives the State Bar also strongly supports, indigent civil legal needs and data collection to study the extent of racial profiling in Wisconsin.
The current state budget, enacted in 2009, significantly boosted state funding for indigent civil legal needs by adding $4 to the justice information fee and designating that money be used to provide grant funding for civil legal services through the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WisTAF).
The Legislature first provided funding for civil legal services for low-income individuals in the 2007-2009 state budget when it included $1 million for that purpose, a move long-supported by the State Bar. A study released by the State Bar in March 2007 (Bridging the Justice Gap: Wisconsin’s Unmet Legal Needs) showed that more than 500,000 state residents routinely cope with evictions, divorces and other critical legal issues on their own.
Gov. Walker’s proposed state budget would also eliminate funding for data collection and analysis to study the extent of racial profiling in Wisconsin and would also use that money to help fund the increased compensation for prosecutors and court interpreters.
The Legislature is also considering separate legislation to eliminate the study of racial profiling. The State Bar supports measures to study the extent of racial profiling in Wisconsin and opposes efforts to eliminate funding for the study.
The proposed state budget also eliminates sum-sufficient public funding of Supreme Court campaigns, making that program dependent upon a voluntary income tax check-off. Under Gov. Walker’s proposal, funding will be limited to the amount of money generated by the check-off.
Under current law, enacted in 2009, money from a $3 check-off on individual state income tax returns is placed in a Democracy Trust Fund. Under current law, if the check-off does not generate sufficient funds, money is transferred from the state’s general fund to fully fund the program. Gov. Walker’s proposed state budget ends the transfer of money from the state’s general fund as well as the sum-sufficient matching grants provided under the current program.
The State Bar’s Board of Governors has long-supported public financing for Supreme Court campaigns using general purpose tax revenues as under the current program.
Finally, like many state agencies, circuit court budgets under Gov. Walker’s proposal are subject to a 10 percent cut in most appropriations, excluding salaries and fringe benefits. The State Bar supports adequate funding of state trial courts from general purpose tax revenues.
Other provisions of interest
Gov. Walker’s proposed state budget has several other provisions of significant interest to State Bar members. For example, the budget recommends authorizing a county board to direct its clerk of courts to operate a self-help center to provide individuals with information on the court system, including guidance on court proceedings and where to find legal assistance and forms. Gov. Walker recommends authorizing a county to impose a fee for services provided by a self-help center. The State Bar supports the establishment of self-help centers in each county courthouse, but believes such centers should be funded by the state.
The proposed state budget also recommends authorizing the department to set fees for copies of medical records by administrative rule. Since 2009, fees for copies of medical records are set by statute. The State Bar’s Board of Governors has a long-standing public policy position supporting uniform fees for duplication of medical records, to be set by administrative rule.
Other provisions in the proposed state budget would repeal the changes made to sentencing in the current 2009-2011 state budget, with the intent of eliminating early release mechanisms and restoring “truth in sentencing.”
Finally, while not part of the Gov. Walker’s proposed 2011-13 proposed state budget, the controversial budget adjustment bill that is currently stalled in the Legislature would strip civil service protection from more than 30 state agency general counsel positions, making them political appointees.
Continue to monitor WisBar.org and visit the State Bar’s Government Relations page for updated information on these issues.
By Adam Korbitz
, Government Relations Coordinator, State Bar of Wisconsin
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