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    A Penny for Justice

    If state tax dollar funding went from the current 0.85 percent of state tax dollars to 1.0 percent of state tax dollars, much of the funding imbalance for the court system would be addressed.

    George C. Brown

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    You don’t need to look closely to know that Wisconsin’s third branch is facing a funding crisis. We all know the stories of judges having to buy their own paper and office supplies or clean their own courtrooms or preside over a courtroom from a bench built from industrial grade plywood.

    Why is this happening? Where does the money come from and where does it go?

    John Voelker, director of state courts, recently spoke to the State Bar Board of Governors on this subject. His report was fascinating and frightening, kind of like watching a train wreck in progress.

    George C. Brownorg gbrown wisbar George C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    The court system has three funding sources – state taxes, fees and surcharges, and the counties – which sounds sufficient. Emphasis on the word “sounds.”

    Less than a penny out of every state tax dollar goes to fund the Wisconsin court system. That’s right. Only 0.85 cents of every state tax dollar goes to fund judges’ and justices’ salaries, court administration, including the state law library, the circuit court support payment system, interpreters, and guardian ad litem assistance. And that state tax dollar amount got reduced by more than $17 million in the current state budget between appropriation cuts and lapse requirements. Of that 0.85 cents, more than 70 percent funds positions, which are required by statute. That means that less than 30 percent of those few dollars are available to deal with the recent overall reduction. That’s the first funding leg.

    The second funding leg consists of circuit court fees and surcharges. The first 24 percent of those fees stay with the counties to fund any other county operations, including the courts. Of the remaining 76 percent, six percent is used to fund CCAP. The other 70 percent goes to the state’s general fund or to fund other state programs (courts are getting some of the county revenue, so it is hard to say how much goes to the courts). The percentage of the revenue going to the court system is small, and the revenue from these fees continues to decrease.

    The court system has three funding sources – state taxes, fees, and surcharges, and the counties – which sounds sufficient. Emphasis on the word “sounds.”

    The third of the three legs of court funding is the counties. They pick up the cost of all other court operations, including the courtrooms themselves, supplies, services, and various support personnel, such as bailiffs. And the state is squeezing the counties in several ways. State funding to counties has been decreasing and the legislature has placed levy caps that prevent the counties from raising taxes. Finally, the state court system has responded to the recent $12 million lapse by limiting the financial assistance it provides to counties for circuit court operations.

    When established in 1978, the current court system was envisioned to be an equal partnership between counties and the state. The counties now pick up 56 percent of the funding. With the potential for reductions in state financial assistance, that percentage could continue to rise. (In 2001, the counties picked up 47 percent of the funding.)

    However, some semblance of balance can be restored. If state tax dollar funding went from the current 0.85 percent of state tax dollars to 1.0 percent of state tax dollars, much of that threat would be addressed. That’s all that John Voelker is asking us to strive for – a penny.

    Think of it, just a penny for justice.




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