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Courts, legal agencies wary of big deficit

By: dmc-admin//December 8, 2008//

Courts, legal agencies wary of big deficit

By: dmc-admin//December 8, 2008//

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The revelation that Wisconsin could enter the next budget cycle with close to a $5 billion deficit may force the state court system to do even more with less.

Five years ago when the state was facing a $3.2 billion deficit, Director of State Courts A. John Voelker said the system made several concessions, including a suspension of out-of-state travel and a reduction in use of reserve judges.

But Voelker said that he does not know what to expect this time around, although his office has already frozen hiring, consistent with a directive from the Department of Administration (DOA).

“There are a lot of unknowns out there — not knowing the extent of the cuts and how much has to be made up with other revenue,” Voelker said.

While Gov. Jim Doyle has yet to specifically outline any reductions in the Wisconsin court system or other legal organizations under the state’s financial umbrella, he recently rescinded a plan calling for agencies to cut administrative budgets by 10 percent.

Negotiating Cuts

A Nov. 17 deadline for agencies to submit their budget reduction plans was also waived, and Doyle announced that the State Budget Office will be contacting organizations directly to negotiate possible cuts beyond 10 percent.

DOA spokesperson Linda Barth said at this point the department is primarily working with the 14 cabinet agencies on ways to reduce expenditures and increase efficiency.

She declined to comment on whether cuts to the court system or other state-funded legal agencies like the State Public Defender or District Attorneys’ offices are likely, but she said in the past, the state has given priority to those entities involved with public safety.

“I’m not sure how things will play out for legal or judicial groups, but generally in the past we have paid special consideration to public safety or judicial safety in state government,” Barth said.

Department of Justice spokesperson Bill Kosh also declined to speculate on what impact any reductions could have on the agency, while SPD spokesman Randy Kraft said the DOA has yet to contact them.

Barth said that while the DOJ is not a “cabinet” agency, there are plans to work with the department to “achieve some efficiency.”

“We’re just following along at this point,” Kosh said.

Holding the Line

In September, the SPD submitted its $170 million biennium budget proposal, which would not increase the current funding received by the agency.

Timothy C. Baxter, past-president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association said for the last several years, state prosecutors have not been required to submit decreased budgets.

“We are kind of exempt in that way, because we are so far down in positions,” said Baxter, who pointed to a recent study, which showed the state is short more than 120 prosecutors.

Baxter said while many district attorney offices around the state submitted budgets requesting an increase in staff, he is not optimistic that any significant additions will be made anytime soon.

“Unfortunately, the best we can hope for is the status quo,” Baxter said. “It would be next to impossible to lose any more as our abilities are already hamstrung, but we’re certainly not going to quit doing the best job we can.”

District attorney’s offices, which fall within the budget of the DOA, received $46 million in fiscal year 2008 and requested increases to $50 million in 2009-10 and $52 million in 2010-11.

Waiting and Watching

In the meantime, Voelker and other officials are keeping a close eye on the bottom line, which could significantly change when Doyle introduces his 2009-2011 budget in February.

Voelker said he is skeptical that two judicial vacancies in Milwaukee and one in Marathon County would be filled prior to the April elections. Doyle also announced that he is seeking applicants for the Waukesha County Circuit Court seat vacated by Judge Mark S. Gempeler, who retired on Dec. 2, although that appointment would run through 2010.

“We can’t just leave those calendars dark,” Voelker said.

In 2003, he trimmed court costs during the budget crunch by holding several judicial vacancies for an extended period of time and also cut down on the use of reserve judges.

But Voelker was quick to note that one thing he cannot do is reduce the number of constitutional officers.

“I can’t just decide to go from 240 judges to 230 to save money,” Voelker said. “It’s just not an option.”


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