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    Legislative Watch: State Budget Provisions of Interest to Lawyers

    Items of special interest to lawyers in the 2007-09 state budget include increased funding for civil legal needs, state public defender costs, and court interpreter reimbursement, among other provisions

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    Wisconsin Lawyer Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 80, No. 12, December 2007


    Thomas Solberg & Adam Korbitz

    2007 Act 20, the long-awaited 2007-09 state budget, includes several items of special interest to members of the State Bar and is equally notable for some of the provisions dropped from the final version of the bill. The budget passed the Assembly with 23 Republicans and 37 Democrats voting in favor and 29 Republicans and 10 Democrats voting against. The bill passed the Senate on an 18-15 party-line vote and was signed by Gov. Doyle on Oct. 25.

    Good Things Included in the Budget

    $1 Million for Civil Legal Needs. Act 20 appropriates $1 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2008-09 (FY09) to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation Inc. (WisTAF), which will make grants to programs that provide civil legal services to indigent persons. These amounts can be matched with other federal and private grants. WisTAF was created in 1986 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to receive funds from the interest on lawyers' trust accounts.

    State Bar President Tom Basting spoke out several times in favor of funding for indigent civil legal services, and legislators cited the Bar's "Bridging the Justice Gap" report on several occasions in support of the provision. In July, President Basting released a statement that noted the pro bono contributions made by Wisconsin attorneys but stressed that more support is needed to meet the needs documented in the report. "In his budget, the governor proposed $1 million to fund civil legal services in Wisconsin," Basting explained. "While modest when compared to the need and the record of other states, this will help offset the acute need for delivery of civil legal services to Wisconsin residents. The State Bar of Wisconsin urges all legislators to support this crucial first step toward greater access to justice for all Wisconsin families."

    Increased State Public Defender (SPD) Funding. The final budget includes provisions addressing both staffing at the SPD and private bar funding.

    Increased staff positions. Using funding available as the result of exempting the SPD from turnover reductions, the budget creates 9.0 full-time equivalent (FTE) attorney positions and 3.0 FTE legal secretary positions under the general purpose revenue (GPR)-funded trial representation appropriation. The additional positions would allow SPD attorneys, rather than the private bar, to handle cases.

    Private bar funding. The budget transfers $161,600 GPR in FY08 and $22,600 GPR in FY09 from the trial representation appropriation to the private bar appropriation. The budget modifies the SPD's GPR-funded private bar and investigator reimbursement biennial appropriation by $171,800 GPR in FY08 and $1,519,200 GPR in FY09 to fully fund private bar costs during the biennium. The intent of the provision is to mitigate the need for the SPD to maintain position vacancies to remain within its operating budget. As a result, private bar costs to the program are reduced under the amendment.

    Recreation of the Judicial Council as an Independent Agency. The budget allocates one unclassified attorney position and $78,200 in FY08, and $99,400 in FY09, to recreate the Judicial Council as a separate agency. It creates both a GPR annual general program operations appropriation and a federal aid continuing appropriation under the Judicial Council. The final budget also provides that the attorney must be a member in good standing of the State Bar of Wisconsin, must be strictly nonpartisan, and must not make a campaign finance contribution (as defined under state statute) to a candidate for state or local office while employed by the Judicial Council. The budget specifies that the Judicial Commission executive director will no longer be required to provide staff services to the Judicial Council. Further, Act 20 requires that the names of Judicial Council members be certified to the Secretary of State by the Judicial Council attorney, not the executive secretary of the Judicial Commission.

    The 1995 state budget had deleted the positions and funding for the Judicial Council and required Judicial Commission staff to provide support functions for the Judicial Council and pay meeting expenses of Judicial Council members. Subsequent action of the Legislature restored some supplies and services funding (currently $11,800 GPR annually) to the Judicial Commission to offset meeting costs and other supplies and services costs of the Judicial Council.

    Increased Funding for Court Interpreter Reimbursement. The budget provides $233,500 in FY08 and $298,000 in FY09 to increase state reimbursement to counties for court interpreter services. It also modifies statutory language to require that a court, in all criminal and civil proceedings, provide an interpreter for a party or witness who has limited English proficiency, regardless of indigence.

    Funding will be divided as follows: 1) $43,900 in FY08 and $82,400 in FY09 for projected increased use of interpreters under current law; and 2) $189,600 in FY08 and $215,600 in FY09 to reimburse counties for interpreters in all cases, regardless of indigence. Under prior law, the state provided reimbursement to counties for interpreter services for indigent persons in criminal, delinquency, protective services, Wis. Stat. chapter 48 (children's code), and Wis. Stat. chapter 51 (alcohol, drug abuse, developmental disabilities, and mental health) proceedings at a rate of $40 per hour for certified interpreters and $30 per hour for qualified interpreters. Base funding for court interpreter reimbursements is $827,100. Under the budget as finally enacted, total funding will be $1,060,600 in FY08 and $1,125,100 in FY09.

    Good Things Not Included in the Budget

    The final version of the budget does not include the $19 million in circuit court support payments that would have come from an increase in the real estate transfer fee (also not included in the final budget). The practical impact of this decision is that counties will continue to bear these costs.

    Bad Things Not Included in the Budget

    The State Bar Board of Governors officially opposed a proposal to consolidate most state agency attorneys into the Department of Administration and this proposal was not included in the final budget. A proposal to increase, by statute, the fee for medical record copies from $0.31 per page to $1 per page also was dropped from the final bill (the State Bar has adopted a position that supports setting these rates by administrative rule, not by statute).

    Miscellaneous Items Included in the Budget

    Also included in the budget are these items:

    • creation and funding for two new circuit court branches, one for Kenosha County and one for Juneau County (following enactment of the budget, Gov. Doyle signed 2007 Act 23, which adds six new circuit court branches, in Barron, Chippewa, Dodge, Green, Monroe, and St. Croix counties);
    • elimination of the Revisor of Statutes Bureau and the transfer of that office's functions to the Legislative Reference Bureau and the Legislative Council; and
    • funding for 31 additional State Crime Lab DNA analysts previously authorized by the legislature.


    Thomas Solberg is the State Bar public information officer. Adam Korbitz is a government relations coordinator with the State Bar. For more information about the state budget or other legislation, contact Solberg in the Public Affairs department at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6025, (608) 250-6025, or org tsolberg wisbar wisbar tsolberg org.