The 2015-16 Wisconsin legislative session is underway. The biennial state budget will be the legislature’s principal focus from now until passage, typically shortly before July 1. The State Bar’s lobbying will focus on two key issues during this session: court funding and the Second Chance bill.
org gbrown wisbar George C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Last session, the legislature was persuaded of the merits of the Second Chance bill, under which 17-year-old nonviolent first offenders are dealt with in juvenile court rather than in adult court. Strong bipartisan support, however, could not overcome the problem of the funding shift that would increase costs to the counties while reducing costs to the state. With the new session and a new biennial state budget, that problem might be resolved and the bill passed.
But a far more serious funding issue faces our court system. The last budget required the Wisconsin court system to return $11.8 million to state coffers. In a system in which the vast majority of costs are salaries set by law, there is very little room to deal with such a massive budget cut. Obviously, areas such as travel funding for judges and staff could be reduced, but the only other areas are such things as interpreter assistance, guardian ad litem assistance, office supplies for the court of appeals and supreme court, and CCAP and its attendant court support operations. One other area is the circuit court support payments, which provide state dollars to the counties to help offset some of the costs the counties incur in running circuit courts.
“The last budget required the Wisconsin court system to return $11.8 million to state coffers. In a system in which the vast majority of costs are salaries set by law, there is very little room to deal with such a massive budget cut.”
At the same time, a levy cap was placed on counties. In a court system in which more than 50 percent of courts’ costs are funded by the counties, which depend in part on the circuit court support payments to repay them for some of those costs, not being able to raise your levy to offset the loss of state funds means that circuit court services could be cut even further.
While this is a huge part of the courts and State Bar’s efforts, we need to remember that less than one cent of every state tax dollar goes to fund the courts. The courts are only one part of the judicial system, other parts of which are also chronically underfunded: assistant district attorney positions that are unfilled, public defender private-bar rates that reflect the average billing rate from more than 40 years ago, state public defender attorney caseloads too high to ensure adequate representation, and no state funding for civil legal services for the poor. Wisconsin is one of only three states that does not provide funding for civil legal services for the poor.
So you can see the challenge facing the courts and the State Bar as the biennial budget process proceeds through the winter and spring of this year. To receive more information about events this budget cycle, sign up for Rotunda Report, the free monthly newsletter from the State Bar, or contact State Bar Public Affairs Director Lisa Roys at org lroys wisbar wisbar lroys org.