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State Bar dues increase debated

State Bar President Jim Boll stands at the Capitol building in Madison in this file photo. Boll and other bar leaders are working on ways to address a projected $360,000 deficit for the State Bar’s 2012 budget. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

State Bar President Jim Boll stands at the Capitol building in Madison in this file photo. Boll and other bar leaders are working on ways to address a projected $360,000 deficit for the State Bar’s 2012 budget. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

The State Bar of Wisconsin is facing a six-figure deficit for its 2012 budget, but leaders are hesitant to increase dues as a means of offsetting the gap.

Bar officials instead are recommending reductions to membership services — and in some cases, elimination of entire committee’s budgets — to help offset the shortfall.

State Bar President Jim Boll, a finance committee member, said leaders discussed the possibility of raising dues, but decided against it due to the down economy. They opted to push for spending cuts instead, he said.

The finance committee has proposed more than $146,000 in cuts to services and group budgets to make up for the projected deficit of $360,000. The bar reports the projected deficit is due to significant drops in revenue, particularly in the seminars division, which is projected to bring in $460,000 less than planned due to sagging attendance at a variety of State Bar offerings.

But some members of the committees and sections facing cuts said the option of increasing bar dues is something that should be strongly considered as an alternative.

“To maintain the same level of service the bar provides, I think it’s a realistic expectation that bar dues will need to be increased,” said Ben Brantmeier, chair of the 22-member Local Bar Relations Committee, which is slated to lose more than $25,000, or nearly its entire budget.

The last dues increase of $14 occurred in 2005. A vast majority of the 23,000 state bar members pay $472 a year in dues, which includes some Supreme Court assessments.

Boll said the option of raising dues to make up some of the gap could arise again during ongoing discussions of the 2012 budget, including at the June 7 Board of Governors meeting.

Boll said for those who do have their budgets slashed, he hoped it would only be on a temporary basis.

“Those cuts do run contrary to membership benefits,” Boll said, “and I hope it will only be for one year based on the deficit we had.”

Tom Gehl, chair of the Non-Resident Lawyers Division, the largest in the bar, said all options — including raising dues — should be on the table to ensure the bar doesn’t shortchange outreach to members. Gehl’s division is facing a reduction of more than $8,000 in its member services budget.

“Cut to the bone as much as possible,” he said, “but you don’t want to cut so dramatically that the bar isn’t selling its base mission.”

Gehl and other section and committee members said they plan to appeal for reinstatement of the money when the finance leaders discuss amendments May 13.

Bar leaders plan to draw from two reserve accounts to make up whatever deficit remains after further negotiations. At this point, the proposed budget calls for $74,865 to be drawn from both the Opportunity Reserve, which has a projected June balance of $400,000 and the Dues Stabilization Reserve, which contains $404,590.

Not everyone affected by the proposed cuts is in favor of a dues increase, however. Jill Kastner, chair of the Young Lawyers Division, which is facing a cut of almost $10,000, agreed with bar leaders that the timing is wrong to raise dues.

“To be honest, in these very difficult times, increasing dues would be the wrong way to go,” she said, “particularly for young lawyers who have difficulty meeting dues as they are.”

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

One comment

  1. State bar dues are $224, not $472. The extra $248 above the $224 is for Wisconsin Supreme Court Assessments.

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