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Lawmakers expand state attorney pay progression proposal

Certain state lawyers’ salaries would progress through a 17-step system until they reach a maximum of $119,471 a year under a provision adopted by lawmakers in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted around 6 a.m. Wednesday to restore the pay-progression plan to the state’s 2013-15 draft budget. The same committee had voted in May to replace that 17-step system with a three-step system that would have taken the lawyers’ pay only up to $57,688 a year.

The system is meant to reward lawyers for remaining in the employ of the state and is separate from any annual raises state employees might receive in a given year.

The 17-step system was originally adopted for assistant district attorneys in the state’s 2011-13 budget. Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-15 draft budget then proposed extending it to assistant attorneys general and defense attorneys.

In putting it back in the budget Wednesday, members of the Joint Finance Committee also included deputy district attorneys. It was not immediately clear Wednesday afternoon why they had restored the proposal.

For the pay system to become law, it still must be passed by the full Legislature and signed by the governor.

When voting last month to reduce the number of steps in the pay-progression system, John Nygren, R-Marinette and co-chairman of the finance committee, said he wanted to target the increases toward lawyers who had between 5 and 15 years of experience working for the state, a point in their careers when salaries tend to lag behind those paid to their counterparts in other Midwestern states.

Reached before the committee hearing on Tuesday, Christian Gossett, Winnebago County district attorney, said his office has been plagued by a high turnover rate, attributed most often to lawyers finding better pay elsewhere. Gossett said he became county DA in 2007 and has since seen his staff members turnover completely in that time.

He conceded that the pay offered by the state is good at the start of a lawyer’s career. But most employees find that they can make more money in the private sector once they’ve gained a few years of experience, he added.

“The starting salary is pretty decent,” Gossett said, “but you shouldn’t have 60 or 70 percent of the employees in your office in training at one time.”

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