Vol. 81, No. 3, March
Inside the Bar
State Budget Woes and the Practice of Law
The State Bar is closely monitoring state fiscal developments here
in Madison and will keep you informed about how the state's response to
the budget shortfall could affect the judiciary and other State Bar
George C. Brown,
State Bar executive director
the past few weeks we've been reminded again that nothing is ever as
clear-cut or final as we might wish. In this column last December, I
enthusiastically reported that the state's 2007-09 budget bill included
a $1 million
appropriation that made Wisconsin the 45th state to provide state
funding for civil
legal services for the poor.
At that time, the state's economic and fiscal prospects were
by last month the picture had changed dramatically. The national economy
slowed markedly as the full scope of the nation's housing and credit
became clear. In its regular review of tax collections and economic
underlying the state budget, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau
that national economic trends will translate into general tax
falling nearly $600 million short of the amount projected when the
finalized last fall. Other revenue and expenditure reestimates move the
biennial shortfall to $655 million. By law, the state budget must be
balanced by June
30, 2009, the last day of the biennium.
At about the same time this information was released, Gov. Doyle
ordered state agencies to cut their projected expenditures and took
budgetary steps to reduce the deficit by more than $200 million. We
cuts include reducing the State Public Defender private bar
budget line. This inadequate reimbursement is a hit that our defense
members have been taking on for years and it effectively leaves those
practice lawyers who take public defender cases unpaid for several
budget hit is on top of the already abysmally low rate of $40 per hour
now pays them.
But the bad news doesn't necessarily end there.
The Fiscal Bureau also cited other potential budget hazards. If
state loses several high profile court cases, an additional $500 million
added to the deficit and drive the projected shortfall to more than $1
This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Wisconsin budgeted a
reserve of less than 1 percent of total spending (far short of the 6.7
percent nationwide average). If Wisconsin had instead amassed reserves
the nationwide average, it would have nearly $1 billion available to
cyclical budget shortfalls, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers
What does this budget situation mean for lawyers and the courts?
this writing, no solutions have been offered formally, but some
leaders have responded by insisting that the state enact no new
would require spending money. This means that efforts to increase
rates and to raise indigency standards for public defender cases
stalled for the balance of this legislative session. It also means that
to change the law regarding the treatment of 17-year-olds charged with
are unlikely to gain any traction until at least next year.
Amid all this fiscal uncertainty there is one bit of positive
State Bar government relations coordinators are confident that the five
courts scheduled to open in August 2008 will do so.
As difficult as the fiscal problems outlined above are, the
could get worse - especially if fears of a national economic recession
We will continue to closely monitor fiscal developments here in Madison
keep you informed about how the state's response to the budget shortfall
affect the judiciary and other members of the State Bar. We also will
remind policy-makers that providing access to justice for all Wisconsin
residents must remain a top state government budget priority.