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Private bar funding gap narrowed

It will be a happier New Year for many private bar attorneys who took State Public Defender appointments during the last fiscal year.

On Dec. 14, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved $5.4 million in supplemental money to help offset a budgetary shortfall of more than $9 million in private bar reimbursements.

Without the financial aid, payment for a portion of the 53,579 private attorney appointments from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 would have ceased in February until July.

Attorney Deborah M. Smith, Director of the SPD Assigned Counsel Division, said the money will help cover payments through April.

However, pending any additional money, there will still be attorneys forced to wait upwards of two months, until July 1, to get paid.

Currently, there are about 1,182 lawyers certified to take public defender appointments, although less than half of the lawyers on the roster handled 85 percent of the appointments.

In an effort to disperse the aid in a judicious manner, the SPD is regulating payments for interim experts as well as bills more than six months old.

The SPD also transferred more than $880,000 in staff salary and fringe benefit balances remaining in the current budget toward the private bar appropriation, as it has done in previous years.

The agency has endured budget shortfalls in the past, including $5.2 million in 2007-09 and $1.2 million in 2005-07.

During the last budget cycle, a $12.7 million gap was avoided through a $3 million allocation from the Department of Administration and an additional $9.7 million from the budget repair bill.

As it has done in the past, the agency submitted a budget request for additional funding to avoid future shortfalls. In its 2011-13 proposal submitted in September, the SPD asked for a total of $12.7 million in “cost-to-continue adjustment.”

According to SPD Budget Director Megan Christiansen, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau will re-estimate the amount needed to fully fund the private bar appropriation in the upcoming biennium and reduce the deficit projection as a result of the $5.4 million supplement approved on Dec. 14.

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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