June 7, 2021 - Summer in Wisconsin has arrived. Greenery abounds in the trees and lawn in the Capitol square. The spring tulips have been replaced with other flowers. Memorial Day weekend brought faint smells of freshly grilled brats wafting in from surrounding neighborhoods. If one listens closely enough, you may overhear one other sign of early summer happening inside the Capitol--the biennial grind of the final legislative budget negotiations.
Civil Legal Aid Funding Recap
This legislative session has been an important one for civil legal aid funding. Currently, Wisconsin invests fewer state funds in civil legal aid than any of our neighboring Midwestern states, and pandemic-related impacts have increased the need. Previous budgets have earmarked $500,000 per year of federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) dollars to civil legal aid funding and limited aid spending to cases of domestic violence.
In February, Governor Tony Evers’ proposed budget included two measures that would have increased civil legal aid funding to a combined total of $3 million dollars per year—including $2 million administered by the Department of Administration and an increase to TANF earmarks to $1 million per year. As legislative Republicans worked to draft their own version of the budget beginning in April, they are considering their own proposals.
The State Bar supports increased civil legal aid funding, as well as relaxed funding restrictions, allowing eligible clients to be helped on a broader range of civil legal matters, and removal of the $75,000 funding cap. These changes will allow providers to serve many more families in need and ensure a more equitable distribution of funds in rural areas served by fewer legal aid providers.
The Joint Finance Committee is expected to take the issue up, along with other funding measures related to the Department of Children and Families later this month. The State Bar is encouraging members of the Joint Finance Committee to include an increase to civil legal aid in their final budget.
Expungement reform has been on the legislative agenda for several sessions now, and many organizations are working hard to ensure that this is the session it becomes law. On the Senate side, SB 78 was recommended for passage by the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety in a 5-2 vote. The bill is now available to be scheduled for a floor vote in the full Senate—but a full floor vote is still contingent upon Senate GOP leaders putting it on the schedule.
On the Assembly side, an amendment was offered by Rep. Cody Horlacher (R-Mukwonago) to AB 69 which would add the following crimes to the list of those not eligible for expungement: Class I stalking offenses, property damage to a business, criminal trespass to a dwelling, and violation of a domestic abuse injunction or restraining order. On May 27, the bill passed out of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee unanimously. AB 69 currently has enough co-sponsors in the Assembly to pass if it reaches a full vote. If this happens, the two legislative chambers will have to consider which version of the bill to ultimately approve.
Last legislative session, an expungement reform bill passed the Assembly on a voice vote, but was not scheduled for a full vote in the Senate despite being recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Law Enforcement Reform
Finally, dual packages of law enforcement reform bills are moving rapidly through the Senate and Assembly.
The Senate package of law enforcement reform bills authored by Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) have also made some progress since we first reported on them. Of the bills that the State Bar is supporting, three have been approved by their respective Senate and Assembly Committees:
- SB-122/AB-110, making changes to the public noticing requirements for law enforcement agencies’ use of force policies.
- SB-123/AB-109, directing the Department of Justice to collect information and publish an annual report on law enforcement use of force incidents, injuries, and firearm discharges. They also require demographic data on such incidents to be collected and reported.
- SB-124/AB-258, creating a community-oriented policing-house grant program in the amount of $600,000.
Assembly Bills 329-335, the result of the work of the Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, were up for public hearings in the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety on May 27. On June 3, the entire package of bills was recommended for passage by the Committee and now await floor action. The State Bar registered in support of the entire package of bills.
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.