April 23, 2013 – The Legislative Joint Finance Committee will vote on specific biennial budget proposals in the coming weeks. The Committee, which consists of eight senators (six Republicans and two Democrats) and eight Assembly representatives (six Republican and two Democrats) will work over the next month to modify or approve portions of Governor Scott Walker’s biennial budget proposal. Gov. Walker introduced his budget proposal, Assembly Bill 40, in February to the Legislature. Over the last month, the Joint Finance Committee held state agency briefings and four public hearings on the proposal in Baldwin, Green Bay, Wisconsin Dells and Greendale. Starting Thursday, April 25 the Joint Finance Committee will start the month-long process of going through individual budget proposals.
Cale Battles is a government relations coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached at org cbattles wisbar wisbar cbattles org, or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
Budget Proposal Will Fund Pay Progression
The governor’s budget includes new money to fund pay progression for assistant district attorneys (ADAs), state public defenders and assistant attorneys general. Last session, the governor signed 2011 Wisconsin Act 238, a bipartisan proposal to establish a new pay progression system to increase the pay of ADAs. While that legislation established the pay progression program, the Legislature delayed implementation of the program until it could be fully funded in the biennial budget.
Gov. Walker’s plan also was expanded to include attorneys from the State Public Defender’s office and the Attorney General’s office. In the Budget in Brief report, the governor said it is vital to have a robust criminal justice system to prosecute and defend the accused. Retaining experienced attorneys on both sides of the courtroom is necessary for an efficient and effective criminal justice system and pay progression will reward attorneys with increasing years of service. The State Bar Board of Governors reaffirmed its support for the pay progression proposal at its quarterly meeting in Sheboygan on Saturday. The governors unanimously passed modified policy positions supporting compensation and benefit packages for state attorneys, so that Wisconsin can attract and retain government attorneys to ensure that everyone is receiving proper representation in criminal cases.
Access to Justice Commission and State Bar Request Funding for Civil Legal Needs
The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, in conjunction with State Bar, continues to push for funding for civil legal services for the poor. Members of the Access to Justice Commission testified on the need for funding at every public hearing held by the Joint Finance Committee. The funding for civil legal needs was removed in the 2011-13 budget, and Wisconsin remains one of four states that provide no state funding for this program.
The modest funding request would be targeted to indigent victims of abuse who desperately need civil legal representation in order to start down the path of recovery and independence. Commission members, in their testimony to the Joint Finance Committee, pointed out that every $1 directed toward civil legal services can help recover over $10 for their clients.
Proposed Lapse Could Hamper Court Operations
The State Bar is also concerned about a provision contained in the governor’s proposal that would require the court to lapse $17 million into the state’s general fund. According to the court’s budget office, the $17 million lapse would be the largest reduction ever to the court’s operations. If the reduction were to pass, the court has indicated that ramifications would be felt across the board, from the Wisconsin Supreme Court to circuit courts. Because of constitutional implications for speedy trials in criminal cases, civil matters could be significantly delayed. There could be delays in cases involving business and contract litigation, family law cases, paternity and child support matters, and other civil disputes.
The State Bar, though, is encouraged by recent comments by various legislators indicating a willingness to work with the court in funding its budget.
The budget will now be the focus of the Legislature over the next two months. The full Legislature will also need to debate and vote on the proposal in late May or June. All of the budget actions should be complete before the fiscal year begins on July 1, 2013.