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Committee questions proposed changes to courts budget

Members of the legislative Joint Committee of Finance had some tough and far-reaching questions Monday.

Legislators, in particular, questioned some of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed changes to the court system’s budget. State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, asked whether Walker’s proposed elimination of the Judicial Council and the transfer of the Judicial Commission to the Supreme Court’s budget was discussed when Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and her staff met with the governor about the court’s budget request.

State Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said he was open-minded about the governor’s suggestion to transfer the administration of the Judicial Commission to the Supreme Court, but he could not understand why the Judicial Commission would lose its independence if it were to be transferred to the Supreme Court’s budget.

State Sen. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said she didn’t understand why there was any discussion about eliminating the Judicial Council’s existence given the work they have done in updating the criminal code and the fact that the 21 members of the council are basically unpaid. She noted that the council’s budget consists of paying staff attorney April Southwick, along with rent and other related expenses.

Abrahamson testified at the Joint Committee on Finance budget briefing Monday, answering those questions.

She urged the committee to support the court’s request for $2.1 million to implement mandatory e-filing, keep the Judicial Commission as a body independent from the administration of the Supreme Court and let the Judicial Council continue its existence.


Abrahamson also answered questions about the effects of the governor’s proposal to change the structure of the court’s budget into a block grant. She said that the proposed block grant has two unintended consequences: it omits language needed for the state to pay court reporters’ salaries, and the appropriation is $2.2 million short. Abrahamson said the governor’s budget office has agreed to issue errata on both.

She also said the governor is proposing sweeping changes to how the circuit courts are financed.

“In creating the new block grant structure, the bill repeals nearly three pages of statutes governing circuit court funding, including a definition of circuit court costs and rules for payments for services of guardian ad litem and court interpreters,” Abrahamson said. “These three pages are replaced with two sentences that direct the Director of State Courts to define ‘circuit court costs’ for the purpose of making payments to the counties from the new block grant.”

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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