Feb. 6, 2015 – Gov. Scott Walker introduced the 2015-17 Biennial Budget in the Assembly Chambers on Tuesday, Feb. 5. The 1,839 page bill draft contains $68 billion in spending over the next two years, and includes a number of issues that will be hotly debated by the Legislature. Some of those issues include drug testing for recipients of food stamps and government benefit programs, bonding for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, reductions in University of Wisconsin System funding (as well as an effort to provide the system with more autonomy), changes and modifications for the workers compensation program and funding for future road building projects.
Revenue projections put a bit of damper on the budget rollout, as the state is facing a shortfall of more than $800 million.
Governor Keeps Court Funding Flat, Adds Block Grant
With revenue projections showing the state with an almost $800 million shortfall, there was some concern that the governor would recommend the courts lapse money back into the state’s general fund. In the last biennial budget, the state court system dealt with an $11.8 million lapse that had to be returned to the state’s general operations fund. Gov. Walker was much more generous this session by adding some increased funding to the court system’s budget.
The biennial budget calls for a General Purpose Revenue (GPR) increase of 6 percent for the supreme court, 2 percent for circuit courts and 2.6 percent for the court of appeals. (It should be noted that the supreme court’s budget is reduced when considering all court funding, but much of that reduction is due to a re-estimate in funding. Further research is needed to determine the reasons for the new estimate.)
One of the interesting provisions that the governor included in his proposal is a block grant that would provide the court with funding authority. This provision would allow the court more flexibility in determining funding for some court functions. Previously, the court’s hands were tied by statutory provisions mandating that it fund programs at certain levels or under certain formulas. More research and information still needs to be gathered on this change and current funding practices. If the Legislature chooses to accept the new block grant funding system, it would provide the court with increased budget autonomy.
An item in the court's recommended budget which was not funded was a $2.1 million request to implement electronic filing in the circuit courts. This request would have provided funding for training, equipment and general start up.
Changes to Judicial Council, Judicial Commission
Two very notable changes that Gov. Walker proposed include the transfer of funding and position authority of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission to the supreme court, and the transfer and defunding of the Wisconsin Judicial Council. The role of the Judicial Commission is to investigate and dispose of complaints of judicial misconduct. Since 1978, the Judicial Commission has acted as a separate agency, independent of the court. With the transfer of funding and positions, the governor’s proposal would remove the agency’s independence, as it would now be contained within the supreme court. It is unknown how this change will affect how the Judicial Commission operates. Currently, the commission has investigative authority over 500 current sitting judges, including supreme court justices, judges on the court of appeals, circuit courts and municipal courts.
The Judicial Council’s fate is much murkier. The budget proposal calls for a complete elimination of all funding and statutory references to the council. Gov. Walker indicated in his proposal that the court has the authority to create and support an advisory council if it so chooses. The Judicial Council has worked on a number of substantial legislative and court initiatives, including most recently, drafting revisions to the state’s criminal procedure code and amendments to the rules of evidence.
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.
Pay Progression for ADAs, Private Bar Rate
Last budget, a new pay progression system was approved in an attempt to reward and retain high quality prosecutors. There is currently concern that this new system was not funded in the most recent budget, which would be a major blow to mid-level prosecutors and district attorneys looking to maintain their staff. The governor also rejected a request from district attorneys to add 107 assistant district attorney positions around the state.
The private bar reimbursement rate will continue to be the lowest reimbursement rate of any state in the country. The $40 per hour rate has not been changed since 1995, while overhead costs for attorneys that take private bar appointments continue to rise. The governor did include an increase in the private bar appropriation that will make sure that money will be available to pay private bar attorneys for their work. One new item the governor approved is a two-year pilot program for a conflict office for felony cases in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Racine Counties.
Crime Prevention Funding Board Surcharge
The governor recommends creating a $20 Crime Prevention Funding Board (CPFB) surcharge for each felony and misdemeanor conviction. All funds collected by a county under the CPFB surcharge must be held by the county in a crime prevention fund. The governor also recommends requiring each county to create a CPFB, comprised of seven local criminal justice officials. Funds held in a crime prevention fund must be distributed as grants at the direction of the CPFB.
Important Budget Items Left Out
The governor chose not to include funding for the Second Chance initiative, which would return 17-year-old nonviolent, first time offenders to juvenile court for certain low level offenses. Advocates, including the State Bar, have been lobbying the Legislature for this change, as Wisconsin is one of only seven states that treat 17-year-olds as adults.
The State Bar will also be working with legal stakeholders to encourage the Legislature to fund civil legal services to low-income residents. Wisconsin is one of only three states that provides no funding for these services. The Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission is currently seeking $5 million in state funding to provide services that help remove barriers to employment, as well as protect vulnerable individuals from abuse.
What Happens Next in the Budget Process?
The budget will now be the focus of the Legislature for the next four months. The Joint Finance Committee will hold agency budget briefings early next month, with statewide hearings to follow. Voting on individual provisions will begin in early April, with final committee votes taking place before Memorial Day. The Legislature will then debate and vote on the proposal in late May or June. It is anticipated that all budget votes will be completed by mid-June, with the governor signing the budget bill before July 1, 2015, when the new fiscal year begins.