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Budget proposal supports growing State Public Defenders office (UPDATE)

An update of outdated eligibility standards to qualify for a Wisconsin State Public Defender is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011-13 budget proposal allocates about $10 million to support additional staff attorneys needed to accommodate the change. The money would cover salaries and benefits for 45 new positions, according to the State Public Defender’s office.

But agency officials are not taking anything for granted, given the SPD could also be adversely impacted by the passage of Walker’s budget repair bill.

The SPD is among 13 state agencies facing layoffs as a result of delayed passage of the legislation, which seeks state union employee concessions and the elimination of collective bargaining rights.

Fourteen Democratic state Senators fled to Illinois more than two weeks ago in protest of the bill, preventing a vote on the legislation.

In a  letter issued Friday by Gov. Scott Walker’s office, the SPD was notified of “impending layoffs or other personnel actions,” although the number of affected employees was not specified.

Layoffs would not take place until at least April 4, according to the letter.

At this point, Wisconsin State Public Defender Association acting president Joan Zawikowski said layoff notices have not been sent out to employees.

“Of course, we’re disappointed it’s come to this,” she said. “But we’re in a fairly unique position. Win, lose or draw, come April 4 we still have clients.”

Zawikowski said she is still optimistic that mutually beneficial legislation can be passed for the state and unions, but “best case scenario” is collective bargaining rights remain.

“It’s all theoretical at this point,” she said. “One of the hardest things about how this has played out is there is no plan as to how this is supposed to look at the end.”

SPD spokesperson Randy Kraft said he didn’t know to what extent employees would be affected.

“We’ll be waiting for further direction,” he said.

In the meantime, the agency is recruiting for the new positions, expected to be filled by June 19 when the updated indigency standards take effect.

In 2009, the state Legislature passed Wisconsin Act 164, which expanded the 22-year-old financial eligibility criteria to qualify for a public defender. Rather than rely on the antiquated 1987 Aid to Families with Dependent Children standard to determine eligibility, individuals will be evaluated on current W-2 limits, which is expected to increase the amount of people eligible for representation.

Kraft said the new entry level positions, with a starting salary of about $49,000, would be primarily in the Appellate and Trial divisions of the SPD.

“The governor’s budget recommendation allows us to stay on track for our planning and implementation of the updated standards,” Kraft said.

One comment

  1. What about the private bar attorneys who are not receiving a pay increase, get no benefits and the costs we can recover are being cut?

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