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Bar members divided on dues increase

A looming Board of Governors’ debate over whether Wisconsin attorneys should pay $30 more a year in State Bar dues is shaping up to be hotly contested.

The proposed increase – which would be the first since 2005 – was unanimously approved by the bar’s finance committee during its Jan. 10 meeting. If passed, the bar will collect $592,620 for Fiscal Year 2014-15.

Overall, the proposed FY 2014-15 budget is slated to have about $11.9 million in expenditures; 1.2 percent more than FY 2013-14.

The BOG will hear the finance committee’s pitch for the budget and dues increase during its Jan. 31 meeting at the State Bar office in Madison. A budget is expected to be passed at the BOG’s April meeting in La Crosse.

The money would be used to give bar staff members a 4 percent raise, as well as to hire more personnel for the bar’s continuing legal education programs and its practice management help division, according to a memo attributed to finance committee Chairman Nick Vivian.

Full dues currently amount to $224 a year. With mandatory court assessments, a Wisconsin attorney pays up to $460 a year.

Still, the proposal is expected to ruffle the feathers of several governors, as similar attempts have in the past. The bar has tried to increase dues several times in the past decade, though it has yet to succeed.

Nick Zales, a longtime board member, said he has voted against every dues increase during his tenure, because he doesn’t “believe the bar had explored … cutting enough.”

“Until I hear more arguments, to just say ‘we can’t cut anything because it would affect our programs,” Zales said, “that’s nice, but it’s so vague.”

Lee Turonie, a BOG member representing the bar’s Young Lawyers’ Division, also said the proposal may be a tough sell. Citing a recent report that talked about the financial stress recent law school graduates face, Turonie said young attorneys are looking for any relief they can find.

“You look at those comments and those debt levels and expense levels, [respondents] very clearly stated in that survey that they don’t want a dues increase,” Turonie said, adding that a state Supreme Court rules petition that would extend a reduced fees schedule for young attorneys may help.

The court heard arguments for that petition on Tuesday but did not vote on it.

“If that were a flat denial,” Turonie said, “that would be an extremely uphill battle right now to have a dues increase.”

Vivian did not immediately return phone calls.

The measure has some support, however.

Paul Swanson, a BOG member who is on the finance committee, stressed that the increase is a “modest” one, especially since it has been nearly a decade since dues were increased. If there wasn’t a dues increase, he said, the bar would be “talking about cutting some big programs.”

“We have really examined this for years now and I guess we just figured it was about time,” Swanson said, adding that “we’re very cognizant of the fact people have to dig in to their pocket to pay their bar dues.”

Bar President Pat Fiedler, who also is a member of the finance committee, was in a mediation Friday and was unavailable to speak with a reporter.

However, a statement attributed to him explained that the proposal is part of a plan to trim spending and to put the bar on more solid financial ground.

“… the Finance Committee has found that a modest increase will position the Bar to better address the needs of members going into the future,” the statement reads.

Still, these discussions always can get awkward, Zales said, explaining that staff members – whose salaries make up the largest part of any year’s budget – are in the room while the discussion goes on.

“It’s just very easy to say ‘let’s raise dues to fill a budget gap here,’ before saying ‘look where we can cut,’” he said.

But Swanson said he is not sure “that it’s going to be that hard a sell” come Jan. 31.

“There will be people who say ‘What have you done for me lately?’” Swanson said, “But we really do a lot for the money.”

About Eric Heisig

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