Madison – Wisconsin court officials fear the court’s data management system, including a popular site that allows anyone to easily look up the criminal records of friends and neighbors, could be on shaky ground if the governor’s proposed budget breaks up its funding mechanism.
Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget would end a dedicated funding stream for Consolidated Court Automation Programs, the data management system for the state courts system. State law now gives the system $6 out of every $21.50 charged as part of the Justice Information System Surcharge included in most court filing fees. Under the new proposal, all fee revenue would go to the Department of Administration, which would give the money to the system and a range of other programs. It would also cut the system’s funding by 10 percent.
Jean Bousquet, CCAP spokeswoman, said the switch would allow DOA to move money to other programs in the future. If that happens, CCAP would have to consolidate or cut back on non-essential services, and the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access database would likely be on the shortlist of cuts.
The WCCA site provides detailed and updated information on all past and pending court cases in the Wisconsin circuit courts system and is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Bousquet said while they hope cuts are not necessary, the system would likely deal with budget cuts through gradual moves.
“We do pretty much instantaneous updates of court records now,” Bousquet said. “Maybe we would delay updating the database and do it nightly or daily. It’s just the concern that could be there if this goes through as written.”
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson also indicated that CCAP itself could be jeopardized by the change and urged the Joint Finance Committee to keep the funding stream in place.
“CCAP’s revenue sources need to remain stable and under the court’s authority.” said Abrahamson in testimony to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. “Without a strong, stable CCAP, the court system, indeed the entire justice system, cannot function in an effective and efficient manner.”
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Walker, said Abrahamson’s claims are “simply not true” and that the change was made because the dedicated funding streams made the fee too difficult to administer. Werwie also said the 10 percent cut was in line with across the board department cuts and is needed to balance the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit.
The WCCA site averages 2 million to 3 million hits a day. However, some state legislators have criticized the site’s openness, saying the information can be routinely abused. Former Democratic Rep. Marlin Schneider of Wisconsin Rapids introduced a bill in 2009 that would limit public access and remove records until a judgment has been rendered. The bill died at the end of the legislative session, but debate over the site continued in a special Legislative Council committee. That committee drafted a bill in March that would only clarify that expunged records should be removed from the site.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, has championed the site as providing citizens with essential information and said that any cutbacks to the WCCA site would have “significant consequences.”
“The bottom line is that it saves the state money overall, because the availability of this information online means the individual clerks of courts in different counties aren’t being constantly asked to provide it,” Lueders said. “If you make it less useful in any respect, you’re going to increase the burden on clerks of court.”
Bousquet said that while they’ve not decided on whether to start making cuts to CCAP, they have put a stop to any plans for expansion.