Aug. 25, 2017 – After a few months of delay, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) returned to Madison to resume voting on the last remaining funding items for the state’s multibillion dollar budget. While the committee still has a few larger fiscal items pending, they did take action on items pertaining to the State Public Defender’s (SPD) budget.
Pay Progression for SPD Attorneys
In early June, the JFC took action approving a pay progression plan for Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) and Deputy District Attorneys (DDAs). The pay progression plan for those attorneys allows ADAs and DDAs to move up one full salary step. This salary step equates to an increase of $4,098 annually or $1.97 per hour.
Cale Battles is a government relations coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by email, or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
As part of that action, the JFC only approved a general step wage increase for SPD attorneys of 2 percent in 2018 and another 2 percent in 2019. This increase essentially mirrors increases that are budgeted for all state employees. The new pay progression plan would create an imbalance in the pay scale between SPD employees and prosecutor employees. Historically SPD and ADA attorneys have always been in the same employee classification with similar job duties and responsibilities.
The State Bar urged and supported a plan presented to JFC from State Public Defender Kelli Thompson, and while it wouldn’t achieve complete parity, it would bring SPD attorneys much closer to the pay progression amount given to ADAs and DDAs. At this week’s hearing, the JFC voted unanimously to increase funding for pay progression for SPD attorneys with funding intended to support a 5 percent average salary increase in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
SPD Block Grant Funding Approved
Contained in Governor Walker’s budget proposal was also a provision to move the Public Defender Office into a block grant structure. In the previous 2015-17 approved budget, the Governor proposed and the Legislature approved a new block grant funding structure for the state court’s office. The Governor extended this concept for his biennial budget this spring, implementing the block grant budget structure for the State Public Defender’s Office.
The biggest proposed change with this funding structure is that it gives the Public Defender Board more flexibility to create new positions to balance caseloads between in-house counsel and private bar attorneys. The JFC approved the new block grant structure and granted the SPD new position authority. With this new position authority, the SPD could have the ability to hire more attorneys within the SPD and assign fewer cases to private bar attorneys.
To approve these new positions the SPD will need to return to the JFC through a statutory 14-day passive review process. If no JFC member objects to the newly requested positions within the 14-day window, the SPD’s request would be approved.
$40 Assigned Counsel Rate Remains Lowest in the Nation
After years of lobbying and continued advocacy by the State Bar and other legal stakeholders, 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 remained unchanged since 1995, while overhead costs for attorneys that take private bar appointments continue to rise. The Governor did not include an increase in the private bar appropriation and the JFC passed on voting for an increase to the fee.
The State Bar will continue to advocate for an increase. Members of the Board of Governors voted in April to support rule petition 17-06, which requests an amendment to Supreme Court Rule 81.02 changing the hourly rate of compensation for court-appointed lawyers to $100 an hour and indexing the rate to annual cost-of-living increases.
In a memo circulated to JFC members, the State Bar said the following about the $40-per-hour rate:
The State Bar strongly supports an increase in the Private Bar reimbursement rate above the current $40 per hour. This is the lowest rate in the nation and the rate has been unchanged since 1995. Attorney overhead costs and the rate of inflation continue to push experienced private bar attorneys away from taking cases.
An increase to the $40-per-hour rate in Wisconsin for private bar appointments is long overdue and the unreasonably low private bar rate continues to have dire effects on the system. The lack of private bar attorneys in certain areas of the state has caused delays and postponements, inconveniencing victims and police officers and increasing county jail stays.
If the state raised these outdated private bar rates to an acceptable level, the pool of qualified attorneys willing to take SPD cases would increase and the efficiency in appointing cases would also improve. Delays in our court system would decrease, costly appeals might be avoided, and fewer victims would be re-victimized by drawn out legal proceedings.
At this time, it is difficult to predict the timeline for budget passage. Governor Walker and legislative leaders have indicated a desire to complete action by the end of the summer (Sept. 22), but disagreements over transportation and tax reform could create further delays.