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Gov.’s budget cuts into legal services for poor (UPDATE)

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//March 7, 2011//

Gov.’s budget cuts into legal services for poor (UPDATE)

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//March 7, 2011//

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Civil legal service providers for poor people in Wisconsin are facing substantial cuts pending the inclusion of a budget proposal that eliminates all state money for those organizations.

Part of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011-13 budget reallocates money collected by the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation and distributed to organizations such as Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and Legal Action of Wisconsin to other aspects of the criminal justice system.

The current budget provides about $5 million for civil legal services for the poor, generated by a $4 increase in the $12 justice information fee.

“That would zero out,” said Legal Action executive director John Ebbott. “It’s just a horrible thing.”

Ebbott said Legal Action received about $3 million in state aid during the current budget, all of which would be eliminated in the future under the current proposal.

Loss of the state money would result in 46 positions being eliminated, which Ebbott said is 42 percent of the Legal Action’s staff.

“This is the worst cut we’ve had in history,” he said.

Walker’s proposal would shift money allotted to civil legal service providers to support pay increases for assistant district attorneys and also for additional court reporters in the state.

After an initial $1 million appropriation in the 2007-09 budget, former Gov. Jim Doyle pushed for a more self-sustaining option to increase state money for indigent legal services, and the current budget included the revenue from the justice information fee.

The surcharge is typically assessed with a court fee for filing court proceedings, such as civil or small claims actions.

Loss of state money would also hinder the ongoing efforts of the Supreme Court-authorized Access to Justice Commission.

Formed last year and financed by the State Bar of Wisconsin, the commission is charged with researching and developing ways to increase legal representation for poor people.

The genesis for the commission was a 2007 State Bar study that revealed more than 500,000 state residents do not have access to adequate legal representation.

While the cuts would not immediately jeopardize the future of the commission, attorney member Michael J. Gonring said they would expedite the search for increased long-term private and public financing for civil legal services for the poor.

“Certainly it creates a challenge if the budget cuts go through because the commission obviously wants to increase funding by one way or another,” he said. “We were working on ways to get additional funding even before this, but this would ramp up the work that has to be done.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to review the progress of the commission in 2013.


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