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Assembly budget would cut $19 million from circuit courts

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly made good on its promise to cut spending with passage of its version of the biennium budget on July 10. The budget, passed by a 51-44 vote, calls for approximately $9.8 billion less in spending than the state Senate version which was approved on June 26.

Casualties included removal of more than $19 million in state funding for circuit court operations across the state and deletion of $1 million inserted by Gov. Jim Doyle for legal services for the indigent.

Both the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) and State Senate approved budgets which included both expenditures.

“Basically, the Assembly Bill gutted the courts budget,” said Wisconsin Director of State Courts A. John Voelker, who was not overly surprised with the cuts. “We knew the Republicans in the Senate made statements that they wanted to cut way back on spending, so we assumed that anything we proposed as new money would be up for deletion.”

The Assembly budget would maintain the current spending levels for the circuit courts and eliminate increases of more than $9.1 million in 2007-08 and $10 million in 2008-09.

The Assembly majority also removed the JFC provision modifying the distribution formula for circuit court support payments. The Assembly bill calls for segregated fund (SEG) appropriation to be transferred from the county aid fund, with revenue generated from real estate transfer fees.

Milwaukee County would be highly impacted by the court cuts and revenue sharing restrictions, according to County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, who in a statement said “taxpayers in Milwaukee County could be put in an extremely difficult situation.”

The Assembly also called for removal of a program to provide state grant funding of $1 million through the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation (WisTAF) for legal services for the poor. If excluded from the final budget, the cut would be seen as a setback in solving the problems addressed by the Access to Justice Study completed in spring.

“I appreciate the Assembly trying to be financially responsible to the state, but the cost to the state as a whole to deny qualified people proper legal representation far exceeds this seemingly minor deletion,” said Judge Richard J. Sankovitz, who was chairman of the Access to Justice Committee.

Should this budget pass without the $1 million state support for legal services for the indigent, it would be more difficult for Wisconsin to reach the $16 million recommended annually by the Access to Justice Study anytime soon, Sankovitz observed.

State Bar President Thomas J. Basting, who has been an outspoken advocate of the legal needs study, expressed support for the inclusion of both funding measures in the final budget.

“Because Wisconsin’s 241 circuit courts, which form the backbone of our justice system, are administered by counties but supported by state appropriations, it is essential that the state budget deliver the resources counties will need to meet the critical constitutional duties assigned to them,” said Basting “While the $1 million proposed for civil legal services falls short of funding levels for similar programs in neighboring states, it is an important first step Wisconsin needs to take now to bridge the ‘justice gap’ facing Wisconsin families with significant legal challenges who lack access to qualified legal help.”

Both Sankovitz and Voelker stated that lobbyists are diligently working with legislators to restore the funding when the bi-partisan conference committee meets to negotiate a compromise in the budget, potentially as early as next week.

“I think the wisdom of the Senate will prevail,” said Sankovitz.

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