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Committee scales back pay plan for newer state attorneys (UPDATE)

Wisconsin’s up-and-coming assistant attorneys general, public defenders and district attorneys won’t be able to make more than $57,688 a year under a new pay-progression plan adopted Tuesday by the state’s Joint Finance Commission.

The motion replaced a plan that was included in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2013-15 budget, intended to allow state lawyer’s pay to go through 17 pay progressions to reach the maximum salary of all state attorneys, $119,471. That plan was originally passed for assistant district attorneys in the state’s 2011-13 budget and the governor’s proposal for the state’s next budget would have extended it to assistant attorneys general and defense attorneys.

The pay-progression system approved Tuesday, which would take new employees’ pay up to $57,688 in three steps, is meant to help lawyers in the middle of their careers, said state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, a sponsor of the motion to replace the 17-step plan included in Walker’s budget.

Nygren cited a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which compared the salaries of Wisconsin public defenders and assistant attorneys general with those of their counterparts in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. The report found Wisconsin state attorneys made more on average than their counterparts at the start of their careers and at 15 years of employment or more, but not necessarily in the years between.

According to the report, Wisconsin public defenders with one year of experience or less made an average of $51,418 in 2012, while those in the other four states made $44,673. But at five years of experience, the Wisconsin average was $51,484, while other states offered an average of $53,467. At more than 15 years, those in Wisconsin were making an average of $97,086 and those in the other states were making $85,688.

“We are targeting it to the middle,” Nygren said, “where the problem is.”

Speaking after the commission’s meeting, Adam J. Plotkin, legislative liaison for the Law Offices of the Wisconsin State Public Defender, said it was unclear if the proposal meant state lawyers would be unable to receive general pay increases along with other state employees or if lawmakers will have to take additional steps to give them raises beyond $57,688.

In its report, the fiscal bureau noted that most state employees, including lawyers, received a general pay increase in 2009. It further states that most employees are only entitled to receive one or two pay-progression salary increases in their careers.

On Monday, Steven Means, executive assistant attorney general, said more generous pay increases are needed to ensure the state can retain employees it has invested in. The lack of a sound pay-progression system, he said, makes the state a training ground for lawyers whose ultimate plan is to enter private practice, where they can make money.

“It costs less to retain someone by giving them moderate raises than to rehire and retrain,” Means said.

Forty-five percent of SPD staff members have less than six years of experience, Plotkin said.

In its initial budget request, the Department of Justice noted that of the 11 lawyers who left the department in 2011, 9 cited dissatisfaction with their salaries as one of the main reasons they were leaving. One person who left noted that he received a 123.5 percent pay increase by accepting a position with a federal agency.

But according to the fiscal bureau’s report, only 16 of the nearly 315 lawyers employed by the state in the 2011-12 fiscal year left their jobs for reasons other than retirement. The resulting 5.1 turnover rate came in below the average state employee turnover rate of 6.1 percent for 50 job groups looked at in the report.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau also looked at the years 2001 to 2012 and found that, of the 519 lawyers who left the state employ during that period, 222 went for reasons other than being dissatisfied with their salaries. Of the remainder, 56 left to take another government position. The fiscal bureau noted such moves might have been prompted by dissatisfaction with salaries but “they may also have been motivated by a desire for career advancement while still working in government.”

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