Jan. 18, 2017 – Buoyed by large majorities in both the state Senate and state Assembly, Wisconsin Republican leaders have begun laying the groundwork for issues they plan to put forward during the upcoming 2017-18 legislative session.
With large majorities and continued control of the executive branch with Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans will have the ability to firmly control their own legislative agenda.
On Tuesday, Gov. Walker laid out his plans for the upcoming session in his annual State of the State Address. The speech highlighted his desire to see more funding for education, focus on workforce training and development, and cut taxes and improvements to infrastructure. While gubernatorial State of the State Addresses are historically light on policy or funding details, in just about a month Gov. Walker will be back before the legislature to detail his biennial budget proposal.
Legislative Leaders Return to Their Posts for the 2017-18 Session
Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) returns as the speaker of the Assembly and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) will continue to serve as the majority leader in the Senate. The Joint Finance Committee leadership will also stay the same, with Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) returning as co-chairs.
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.
Last year, before the election, Assembly Republicans released their Forward Agenda, which mirrors many of Gov. Walker's State of the State priorities. While their priorities mirror each legislative house, the executive branch might have different versions or desired outcomes with the stated priorities.
Infrastructure funding will be at the forefront of that debate. Most legislators agree that roads and other sources of infrastructure need additional funding, but there are divergent opinions on the best funding solutions. Toll roads, increases in gas taxes, and amounts of borrowing are just some of the options on the table.
Infrastructure funding won't be the only hot topic this upcoming session. School funding, UW System Funding, tax reform, and Medicaid Assistance will all likely be addressed this session. The state could also see a number of federal law changes that could trickle down and create additional budget pressures for the upcoming year.
The potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or incremental changes to the law will require action by the state.
State Bar to Focus on Court Funding, Prosecutor Retention, and Public Defenders
The State Bar of Wisconsin's lobbying focus will be on a number of issues, but court funding will continue to dominate the early session advocacy efforts. Last session, the court system's budget remained steady with a slight increase.
The judicial system receives less than one percent of every penny of state tax dollars. The State Bar last year completed a large-scale survey of judges, court personnel, and support personnel that showed that seven out of ten (70 percent) survey respondents say the current level of funding for courts in their county/jurisdiction is less than adequate. Respondents indicated that the lack of funding leads to delayed cases, large caseloads, congested court calendars, insufficient staffing, and inadequate courthouse security.
The State Bar will also advocate for adequate compensation, including benefit packages and tuition reimbursement, to attract and retain quality attorneys and judges that work in the justice system. The justice system is complex, and retaining experienced judges and attorneys will help ensure that the constitutional rights of our citizens are protected. Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack has been strongly advocating for increases to judicial salaries in Wisconsin, which has been lagging for a number of years and has now fallen to 41st in the country.
Attorney General Brad Schimel is working on finding increases for state prosecutors and is requesting that Gov. Walker include in his budget request at least $4.8 million to go to prosecutor pay. District Attorneys in their budget request asked for additional funding of $7.9 million to go to salary enhancements and another $16 million to add an additional 113 prosecutors statewide.
The State Public Defender's (SPD) office would also benefit from pay progression to retain their staff attorneys. Their office requested a budget provision to help pay for tuition reimbursement for attorneys that are willing to relocate to rural locations where there are currently lawyer shortages.
The SPD also requested $7.5 million to increase the $40 per hour reimbursement rate for private bar attorneys to a new tiered payment structure rate that would allow private bar attorneys to receive $45 to $60 per hour depending on the type of case assigned.
The current reimbursement rate of $40 per hour is the lowest assigned counsel rate in the nation, and the rate has been unchanged since 1995. The SPD's office in their budget request indicated that the low rate was creating problems in finding qualified attorneys to receive appointed cases, especially in sexual assault cases.
Fairness in Justice System
In the past few sessions and during the summer of 2016, legislators have started to look at ways that criminal convictions or criminal charges have wide reaching and life changing consequences. This past summer, two Joint Legislative Council Study Committees were formed. One was charged with looking at recidivism and removing impediments to employment, and the other committee looked at the funding structure of civil legal services.
The State Bar supports legislative efforts to expand the ability of certain persons to expunge court records. Studies have demonstrated that mere contact with the criminal justice system can have a significant impact on a person seeking employment or housing. Passing the Second Chance Bill will also be a priority this session.
The Second Chance Bill would return first-time, nonviolent, 17-year-old offenders to the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. The legislation received bipartisan support last session with more than 70 co-sponsors, and the State Bar is encouraging the governor to consider the initiative in his next biennial budget.
A sustainable and long-term state solution to the justice gap will also be a focus of the State Bar this session. The 2015-2017 state budget did include a $1 million investment for targeted civil legal needs, but Wisconsin still lags in funding in comparison to other states.
Practice Sections to be Deeply Involved in Multiple Legislative Proposals
The lobbying sections of the State Bar will introduce a number of proactive legislative positions during the upcoming legislative cycle. A number of these projects have been studied and worked on by the sections for some time.
The Business Law section has a number of legislative proposals that will be introduced this spring. The section has been working on codifying proposed uniform laws on Limited Liability Companies, Limited Partnership, and the Statutory Trust Entity Act. These acts will foster uniformity with other states and update current laws to assist in creating and growing current Wisconsin businesses.
The Elder Law and Children in the Law sections continue to work on guardianship reform. The sections have worked together to remove juvenile guardianship provisions from Wis. Stat. Chapter 54 and 55 in order to add them to the children's code in Chapter 48. The Elder Law section is also actively working to improve Chapter 54 and 55, while the Children and the Law section is also pursuing changes to the use of restraints on juveniles in the courtroom.
The Real Property, Trust and Probate Section (RPPT) will propose changes to the Transfer on Death and Transfer by Affidavit statutes. The Family Law Section is working on a proposal allowing for modification of legal custody or physical placement orders contingent upon a future event, as well as a proposal on parent relocation for separated couples.
For more information as the legislative session progresses, contact the State Bar's Government Relations Coordinators, org cbattles wisbar Cale Battles or org ldavis wisbar Lynne Davis.