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State courts director makes early push for more money

John Voelker, director of state courts, sits in his office before a meeting Feb. 12 at the State Capitol in Madison. Voelker decided to start his biennial budget push early, to advocate for a larger chunk of the state tax revenue. (Photos by Kevin Harnack)

John Voelker, director of state courts, sits in his office before a meeting Feb. 12 at the State Capitol in Madison. Voelker decided to start his biennial budget push early, to advocate for a larger chunk of the state tax revenue. (Photos by Kevin Harnack)

John Voelker paused, intent on choosing his words carefully, before saying that the courts system is “not the sexiest branch” of Wisconsin’s government.

A cut to the courts’ budget, and the subsequent effects, are not subjects that grab the public’s attention like, say, a heroin epidemic. But Voelker, director of state courts, knows he needs to make the court system seem just as important so it stands out in the next state budget cycle.

“I think what we have to do is have a discussion about what happens,” Voelker said. “What qualities in your community are affected if the court system isn’t strong?”

And that’s why he’s starting the campaign early this year. He is giving presentations across the state, which he has jokingly dubbed the “1 percent tour.” The sales pitch is to have Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature raise the state tax revenue that the court receives from 0.85 percent to 1 percent. The move would net about $28.8 million more for the next biennial budget, which starts July 1, 2015.

In particular, Voelker is presenting to attorneys and judges, who he said are among the more powerful members of a community and easily can talk to a senator, representative or county board member.

“I think we’ve always tried to identify grass-roots type of support for us, and that has worked with some success,” Voelker said. “But in my opinion, we’re at a point where we need a bigger grass-roots network. It needs to be diverse.”

It’s not necessarily a new tactic. Voelker, who has led the administrative side of the courts since 2003, said he has given similar talks in the past.

But he said he has ramped up his efforts because he and his colleagues see the court at a breaking point.

Collections from clerks of court are shrinking, as are county budgets, which can at least in part be attributed to the economic downturn. Voelker said those cuts have resulted in about 15 percent of the positions he is allowed to have being left vacant.

It also means the state’s court system is sending less money to the counties, which are capped at how much they can bring in each year and how much they have to send back to the state.

In addition, the state has required the courts cut $11.8 million from the budget by June 30, 2015.

“We need to be appropriately funded,” Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeff Kremers said. “To impose these kinds of cuts to the courts is unfortunate and not appropriate.”

The cuts are not the worst the country has seen and haven’t resulted in anything as drastic as the moratorium on jury trials recently established in parts of New Hampshire. But, Voelker said, such measures could happen in Wisconsin.

“We’re working on, by the end of this biennium, four straight years of reductions,” Voelker said, “and depending on how the rest of this biennium plays out, we may have to add to that.”

Still, Voelker said attempts made early this year to put a part of the state’s $977 million surplus toward the courts’ budget were met with a chilly reception from legislators. Voelker would not disclose who he and his staff members have talked to, but said discussions had not been encouraging.

“You can talk to a relatively few number of people,” he said, “and get an idea of how successful you might be in getting this done.”

Representatives from Walker’s office did not return requests for comment. Neither did the offices of Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, the co-chairmen of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Others that returned calls said they were not familiar with Voelker’s request and noted such matters normally are not dealt with until later in the year.

Only one finance committee member, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, had any immediate comment. Grothman said Voelker’s request for more money sounded “absurd,” and “shows a lack of sincerity and common sense on the part of the people asking for it.”

But that’s exactly why Voelker said the courts’ needs should be made clear now; to distinguish them from the inevitable barrage of requests.

Dennis Dresang, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, sits at his Madison residence. Voelker’s push for more money will be a challenge, Dresang said.

Dennis Dresang, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, sits at his Madison residence. Voelker’s push for more money will be a challenge, Dresang said.

Since October, Voelker has given presentations to county boards, judges, clerks of court and the State Bar’s Board of Governors. He also wants to present to committees at the Wisconsin Counties Association and local Lions clubs, among others.

His presentations include the simplest possible explanation of the courts’ financial structure and what is needed to maintain operations. He also explains what more could be accomplished, such as handling the oversight of court interpreters.

“So far, I’m focusing on testing the message a little bit with our own folks,” Voelker said, “judges, a couple judicial groups [and] committees that deal in these areas.”

He said he knows that soon he will be competing with many other interests for a piece of the pie, some with subject matters that drum up far more public concern than the state courts system.

Distinguishing the courts’ plight likely will be a trial, Dennis Dresang, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, said.

“My guess is that is probably not a real visible issue for most legislators or the governor,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge to get them to even notice it, much less make it a high priority.”

Unfortunately, Voelker said, things might have to get worse before people take notice. So far, he said, court budget cuts could mean delays in cases and more furloughs, but nothing concrete.

Nothing like the example Voelker cited from a 2011 American Bar Association report about budget cuts across the country. In that situation, a Washington suspect’s criminal case was dropped because of a speedy-trial concern. After that, the suspect raped a woman and killed someone in a car chase with police.

“And maybe this is what I need to let happen,” Voelker said. “I need to let the system crash to get the examples.”

It would help make his case, said national court advocates.

Bert Brandenburg, the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Justice at Stake, a national partnership working for fair and impartial courts, said Voelker “would do well to look at real people terms.”

“No doubt real people suffered because the courts aren’t adequately funded,” Brandenburg said.

But using extreme examples to make a point can be a risky move, Dresang said. While a scandal or epidemic quickly attracts public attention and outrage, he said, it can backfire if the mention of it comes off as disingenuous.

“Scandals tend to be driven by a lot of other different kinds of factors,” Dresang said.

Voelker said he knows he has his work cut out for him. He’s quick to point out that his intention is to educate audiences about the courts’ budget and said he is surprised by how many people are not familiar with its workings.

When asked if he thinks his request is a long shot, Voelker thought for a moment before offering a response.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know the environment enough to know if it’s a long shot.”

After thinking about it further, he said he thinks it’s attainable, even if it is a sizable chunk of money.

“To think that $28 million is not possible, when you see other examples of it, I will say it’s a hard sell but it’s not a long shot,” Voelker said. “I think there’s a difference.”

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