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GAL fees bill stalls in Legislature

Milwaukee County officials’ attempt to avoid a budget crisis in the courts through an increase in state funding of guardian ad litem and interpreter costs stalled in the Legislature this month.

The county hoped to receive about $2 million from legislation that would have increased court fees. The generated funds would approximately have equaled the difference between what counties would otherwise receive in state reimbursement for guardian ad litem and interpreter costs and the counties’ actual costs in providing those services.

But bills introduced in the Assembly and the Senate for that purpose failed to pass before the Legislature adjourned this month, so the measure likely won’t become law in time to head off the looming court budget crunch in Milwaukee County.

"I think we came remarkably close, considering the short time frame we had, and I really think we worked very well together," said Chief Judge Michael Sullivan, who joined forces with county officials last fall to spearhead the drive for the legislation. "But it just didn’t work out."

Sullivan said he was disappointed by the Legislature’s failure to pass the roughly 10 percent increase in the court support services fee to provide the additional funding.
"We go to them for help, and we just don’t seem to be able to get any," he said.

County Executive Scott Walker conceded that the proposed legislation, which was introduced in early March despite work on it much earlier, wasn’t "singled out," but shared the fate of many bills that were not passed prior to the legislature’s adjournment.

"It obviously faced an uphill battle just because of the timing," Walker said.

Assembly Speaker John Gard said that those in favor of the legislation "don’t have the support they think they have."

"I had people privately come up to me asking me not to schedule this bill, because there was not a consensus yet," he said.

Gard noted that the bill followed another recent increase in court fees.

"We already dramatically increased court fees in the budget, and to then do another hit here — I just didn’t see a lot of support for that," he said.

But prior increases in the court support services surcharge by about 30 percent on each occasion are irksome to leaders in Milwaukee County particularly because the funds generated were not directly designated for the courts.

"That’s what was different about this bill from the other court support service fee increases the last couple of biennia," Sullivan said. "They were 30 percent increases that went into the general purpose revenue fund. This one was earmarked for just the right amount and specifically to the counties for [guardian ad litem and interpreter] fees. I think it made more sense than either of the other two."

Walker said that the proposed increases in state funding could be revisited in the next state budget bill or in separate legislation, and he said that he has not yet given up hope of receiving some additional state aid sooner through other sources, such as through the director of state courts’ office, or from sources outside state and county government.

In the meantime, Sullivan said that the county board chairman asked him, along with Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett, to develop a plan by May to address the approximately $2 million shortfall. But the courts absorbed a budget shortfall of $1 million in 2003 and saved even more money after a subsequent request, he said.

"I can only cut so much," Sullivan said. "I’m being asked to cut into the bone, as I said back in October."

Sullivan said that he is already combining court commissioner positions, and is considering other options, which could include closing a criminal court or a variety of commissioner operations. The strain on the courts would be compounded because roughly 30 clerks could retire this year, so even if the courts can afford to replace them, new clerks would require training and time in order to achieve the level of proficiency of the retirees, he said.

"We’re going to have delays," Sullivan said. "There is no question that things are likely to slow down here."

But Sullivan said that he never guaranteed that the courts would absorb the whole shortfall if the county failed to procure additional aid from the state. Instead, he said he expects to work with county officials to find a solution.

"We’re not at a point here where everybody’s taking a rigid position and nobody is willing to compromise," he said.

Similarly, Walker said he anticipated cooperation rather than confrontation from Sullivan.

"He’s really tried to avoid drawing a line in the sand on any of these issues and declaring war or threatening lawsuits, things of that nature," he said. "I in turn have tried to respect that by not issuing ultimatums, but rather, continuing to try and discuss whether or not there are any other options that can help us fill in the gap."

Although county officials last fall raised the possibility that the county could force the state to fully fund guardian ad litem costs through legal challenges, such as by having court-appointed guardians ad litem seek payment from the state instead of the county for serving in that capacity, Sullivan said that he would not consider options under which attorneys would not be paid.

"The services have to be performed, and the people who do them have to be paid," he said.

Sullivan said that members of the bar could assist the courts by using what political influence they have to persuade the county not to take the "hard line" of insisting that the budget shortfall come entirely from the courts’ budget.

Because the courts are the third branch of government, rather than a county department, their budget needs must be a priority, Sullivan said, adding that case law requires counties to reasonably fund courts. If citizens’ access to the courts is imperiled, funding may not be reasonable, he said.

"That doesn’t mean we get everything we want, all the time," Sullivan said. "But reasonable funding is required."

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