May 10, 2021 – In one fell swoop, the dynamic and scope of the state’s biennial budget drastically changed when the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) voted to remove almost 300 items proposed by Governor Evers. While the vote to remove most of these items was expected, the action will likely only increase the divide between the Governor and legislative Republicans.
Items Removed Include Initiatives Supported by the State Bar
The Governor indicated early on that his budget would focus on criminal justice reform. While many of his provisions remain, a few with bipartisan support were removed. Proposals returning 17-year olds to juvenile court jurisdiction and expungement reform were both removed. While the State Bar was disappointed that these issues won’t be considered as part of the funding package, separate legislation on expungement has already been introduced this session and is moving through the legislative process, and it is anticipated that legislation to move 17-year olds back to juvenile court should be introduced soon as well. Both of these issues have wide bipartisan support and are expected to pass if given the chance to reach both legislative floors for debate and a final vote.
Other proposals that the State Bar supports will have a much harder time getting considered this session. Provisions to index the now $70 per hour private bar rate to annual inflation, restricting juvenile shackling, and raising the age of delinquency from 10 to 12 years old all might see resistance in getting considered in the GOP-led Senate and Assembly.
Important Provisions Still Remain that are Supported by the State Bar
A number of important policies remain in the budget for consideration. Merit pay progression for both public defenders and assistant and deputy district attorneys aimed at keeping experienced and much needed attorneys in these positions remains in the budget. The court system’s funding to expand four circuit court branches as approved by 2019 Wisconsin Act 184 also remains. Expansion of broadband funding, which has received bipartisan support, will also be debated going forward.
Cale Battles is a Government Relations Coordinator for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
The State Bar is strongly supportive of Governor Evers’ proposal to increase funding for civil legal needs by $4 million in general purpose revenue and an additional $1 million of TANF funding. Investment in civil legal aid is a wise investment for Wisconsin: for every $1 invested, Wisconsin’s civil legal aid providers obtain $10 for their low-income clients in the form of child support, security deposits, jobs obtained, and more. Beyond that is savings in the court system where courts can operate more efficiently or issues can be resolved without court intervention. The governor’s proposal also removes restrictions on what services can be provided and on funding caps to TANF funds. This expansion will allow civil legal services to be targeted to more needs like elder abuse prevention, veterans’ benefits and continued domestic violence services.
While we are hopeful these issues will move forward in the budget, the State Bar continues to need our members support in advocating to your elected officials on these important issues. The State Bar’s Advocacy Center makes contacting your legislators as easy as possible. With just a bit of information and only a few minutes, members can submit comments on one the State Bar’s current advocacy campaigns on Supporting Investments in the Justice System, Civil Legal Needs Funding or Expungement Reform. Members can also compose their own message on whatever issue of concern or support currently in the legislature.
Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Public Hearing on Expungement Reform
On Thursday, May 6, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety held a public hearing on Senate Bill 78, a bill to reform expungement in Wisconsin that would remove the requirement that expungement eligibility must be decided at the time of sentencing, remove the age cap of 25 years old for eligibility, and clarify that an expunged record does not count as a conviction for purposes of employment. SB 78 builds upon a multi-session effort to update Wisconsin’s expungement laws, and many members of the committee commended the bill authors for their efforts to work with stakeholders and incorporate their concerns and ideas in this version of the legislation.
The hearing on the bill lasted nearly two and half hours, and began with testimony from the primary bill sponsors, Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay). Rep. Steffen noted that the bill enjoys overwhelming support of businesses and business organizations across the state, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Independent Businesses Inc., Waukesha County Business Alliance, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and American Family Insurance Group. Committee members also noted support for SB 78 from the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union—two organizations that don’t often find themselves agreeing on policy. Law enforcement support for the bill is also noteworthy, including the Milwaukee Police Association and the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association.
Among the 23 individuals giving testimony, all of them were in support of the bill. President Kathy Brost testified in support of the bill on behalf of the State Bar of Wisconsin, sharing a personal story with a unique perspective about how expungement can help individuals that mirrored her testimony to an Assembly public hearing on the companion expungement bill. The State Bar is encouraged to see such robust support for expungement reform and looks forward to working with lawmakers to ensure the bill has a floor vote during the legislative session.
What You Can Do: State Bar of Wisconsin Advocacy Network
State Bar members are encouraged to send a message to their lawmakers expressing support on legislative topics which positively affect the legal system using the Advocacy Network. The pre-written email message is editable to suit your own thoughts and opinions, and will help to demonstrate the breadth of support for policies that prioritize access to justice.
You can also subscribe to the Rotunda Report and follow us on Twitter to stay informed and get involved in the legislative process.