Sep. 21, 2017 – After months of negotiations, Governor Scott Walker finalized the state’s biennial budget in a signing ceremony in Neenah on Sept. 21. The governor used his powerful veto pen 99 times to modify or strike various provisions of the bill.
A number of issues the State Bar supported were included in the final budget, but the Bar was disappointed the governor vetoed a provision on the creation of a State Prosecutors Board, which would have aligned the interests of district attorney offices around the state.
Pay Progression and Block Grant Funding for Public Defender’s Office
The budget included pay progression funding for Deputy District Attorneys (DDAs) and Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs). The pay progression plan that was approved allows DDAs and ADAs to move up one full salary step. This salary step totals $1.97 per hour or $4,098 annually.
The State Public Defender’s (SPD) office will also get pay progression funded. After initially granting SPD attorneys a much smaller pay progression amount, the Joint Finance Committee 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.
The budget also implemented a new block grant funding structure for the SPD and granted the Public Defender Board more flexibility to create new positions to balance caseloads between in-house counsel and private bar attorneys. With this new position authority, the SPD could have the ability to hire more attorneys within the SPD and assign fewer cases out 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 member of the JFC objects to the newly requested positions within the 14-day window, the SPD’s request would be approved.
The budget also approved an increase in compensation for judges by 2 percent beginning Sept. 30, 2018, and another 2 percent increase beginning May 26, 2019. This increase will raise a circuit court judge’s salary by $5,300, a court of appeals judge by $5,618, and a state Supreme Court justice’s salary by $5,955 over the course of the two years. The motion passed by JFC allows the court to ask for additional salary increases during the biennium, with the increases to be supported by the state’s compensation reserves or through existing resources in the court’s current budget.
Prosecutor Board Vetoed
Even with a unanimous bipartisan vote by the Joint Finance Committee that would have established a State Prosecutor Board, it didn’t survive the governor’s veto. The newly established board would have consisted of 11 members, including both elected and nonelected prosecutors from different geographical locations in the state as well as the Attorney General or his designee. The board would also establish an Office of the State Prosecutors, employing an executive director and a legislative liaison. The Office of State Prosecutors would submit the biennial budget request for the Prosecutor Board, prepare fiscal estimates on legislation impacting prosecutor offices, and represent the Board before the governor, Legislature, and other entities.
The governor in his veto message indicated the following objection to the creation of the board: “I am vetoing this provision because I object to the creation of another layer of bureaucracy which is unnecessary and administratively burdensome and redirects valuable staff time away from prosecutorial activities and toward functions of the proposed Prosecutor Board. While I understand the importance of identifying evidence-based practices in the performance of the district attorney function, creating a separate board whose duties resemble activities performed by an existing separate external organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of prosecutors is an ineffective use of taxpayer funding.”
The State Bar is hopeful that this issue will be revisited quickly by the Legislature as separate legislation. Representative Ron Tusler (R-Harrison) and Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) have authored Assembly Bill 231/Senate Bill 155 which would create a State Prosecutor Board. It’s awaiting a committee public hearing in both houses.
Civil Legal Needs Funding Continues
After the governor initially requested the sunset of civil legal services funding that was allocated out of the Federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the Joint Finance Committee rejected the governor’s request and unanimously voted to maintain the $1 million allocation to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. (WisTAF). The grants from WisTAF must be for services related to domestic violence, sexual abuse, and restraining orders and injunctions for individuals at risk under s. 813.123.
Summary of Other Issues of Interest
Governor Walker partially vetoed money allocated to the court for a staff position to support the Judicial Council.
The budget maintains the Judicial Commission as a separate agency. The governor originally proposed merging the commission into the Director of State Court’s office.
The Labor and Industry Review Commission will continue to operate as an independent agency. The Joint Finance Committee rejected a proposal by the governor to eliminate the commission, but added a provision requesting the court to survey the commission’s decisions. The governor vetoed this survey provision.