As expected, Wisconsin courts are asking for an increase in their 2015-17 biennial budget, the majority of which would go to reimburse counties for costs incurred for running the circuit courts.
The courts are requesting $$297,444,600, or $21,174,200 more than what they received for the current biennium. The reimbursement to the counties, if approved by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature, would cost $17.4 million.
Court advocates say the request is being made so the counties, which have generally seen their budgets shrink in recent years, do not have to cut other programs to pay for a constitutionally mandated branch. An Oct. 1 letter attributed to Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said that the courts’ request would put the reimbursement amounts on par with what the courts paid the counties 15 years ago.
“Counties have increased their share of court funding over the years at a time when they are struggling to keep within their levy limits and hold down property taxes,” Abrahamson wrote. “At the same time, state funding has not kept up with increasing court system costs.
David Callendar, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Counties Association, said that the effects of the continued cuts have not been apparent yet, but they would be if the payments weren’t made to the counties.
“There’s limited amount of discretion in the courts budget,” Callendar said. “They can’t do anything with the judges salaries. They can hold positions open, but the biggest discretionary target in the courts program is those circuit court support payments.”
The request was not unexpected.
John Voelker, who stepped down in July as the director of state courts, said prior to leaving that he was trying to drum up support to get the courts more money during the next biennium. The courts overall have faced cuts in the past few budgets, including a mandate to cut $11.8 million from its budget during the current biennium.
“My guess is that it’s probably not a real visible issue for most legislators or the governor,” Voelker said in February. “It’s going to be a challenge to get them to even notice it, much less make it a high priority.”
An email attributed to Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said it is still early in the budget process and that “agency requests will be reviewed as we go through that process.”
In addition to the circuit courts’ request, the state’s Supreme Court is asking for $2.1 million to pay for eight staffers to help implement e-filing statewide. That request is being made in anticipation of the justices hearing a proposal from the Committee of Chief Judges to mandate e-filing in the next few years.
According to the proposal, which was drafted because county clerks of court were slow to adopt it on their own, implementing mandatory e-filing would start in January 2016 and last through December 2018. Training for court officials would be done through the Consolidated Court Automation Program, or CCAP, and online instructions and phone support would be available for those who file.
The proposal is expected to be filed as a rule petition this fall, and the committee will ask the court to hear it in spring.
Courts spokesman Tom Sheehan, in an email attributed to him, said “this budget item would prepare the courts and litigants for a more efficient, affordable and convenient system.”
The budget also includes a request to add another staff attorney to the Court of Appeals. Chief staff attorney Jennifer Andrews said there are 15 staff attorneys assigned to the court, including herself. The request is for $214,900 for the next biennial budget.
Staff attorneys handle many cases before presenting them to the judges — including pro se litigants — and that caseload has increased in the past few years, Andrews said.
“The workload for staff attorneys has increased for no-merit appeals,” she said. “We want to be able to address those cases, but even in just regular cases, the time to dispositions could be improved.
Editor’s Note: The story was updated Nov. 20, 2014, to reflect the courts’ budget request when it includes the Wisconsin Judicial Council and Wisconsin Judicial Commission.