A member of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors is arguing a series of statewide listening sessions is really just a prelude to a dues increase.
The bar’s Dues Evaluation Committee is holding seven public hearings, the first of which was Wednesday in Wausau, to solicit alternatives to the organization’s dues structure. The purpose, according to a bar memo, is to decide if there are ways to change the structure to better serve members.
But Steve Levine, a board member and Madison attorney, isn’t buying that explanation. He said the sessions are simply a way to soften the blow of an inevitable dues increase.
“It’s all just window dressing to show lawyers that the bar cares about them,” Levine said. “Then they can go ahead and increase dues anyway.”
That is not the goal of the hearings, said Kelly Nickel, a member of the Dues Evaluation Committee. She acknowledged the topic of a dues increase could come up, but the goal is to find out what members want for their money.
“We’re looking for feedback on how to better formulate what dues should be,” she said. “I know there is some consternation amongst members about how dues are set, and we want better ideas how to do it.”
Nickel, who also is the bar’s treasurer, said she doesn’t want a dues increase, and the bar has tapped into its reserves and cut expenses during the recession to avoid an increase.
The bar faced a budget deficit of $223,729 on June 30, the end of the organization’s fiscal year. Bar leaders still chose not to endorse a dues increase in the current budget and instead trimmed costs in areas such as section and committee budgets.
Jeff Zirgibel, a Board of Governors member, said he doesn’t buy the argument the sessions are simply a precursor to a dues increase. With the organization facing a deficit, he said, members wouldn’t need listening sessions to come to grips with an increase in bar dues.
“This is really about the structure and determining whether the structure should be changed,” Zirgibel said. “That’s it.”
Levine acknowledged his is a cynical view of the sessions, but he questioned how the bar would change its dues structure without a transition to a voluntary bar. Levine and Madison attorney Jim Thiel have a petition pending before the state Supreme Court to abolish the mandatory bar.
“I’m not even sure what is meant by dues structure,” Levine said. “Would they make you a half-member if you don’t want to receive certain publications?”
Hybrid memberships are worth considering, Nickel said. But the practical aspects of modifying the dues structure will take time, she said.
“How do we dismantle this organization that is really the tax collectors for the Supreme Court?” Nickel said. “I’m not going to presuppose what the recommendations will be, but a tiered structure is a novel concept and may need to be explored.”
If the bar also needs to explore increasing dues, Zirgibel said, members should be able to handle it.
“The board doesn’t like to raise dues,” he said. “But I also don’t think anyone would have a nervous breakdown over a $5 or $10 hike to raise money.”