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Budget panel to decide fate of workers’ comp court reporters

Budget panel to decide fate of workers’ comp court reporters

A powerful panel of lawmakers is close to voting on whether the state will continue requiring court reporters to be present at workers’ compensation proceedings.

Current law requires that testimony given at workers’ compensation hearings be taken down by a court reporter. Only if there is an emergency does the state allow testimony to be recorded.

In 2016, court reporters took testimony in 400 workers’ comp hearings. For 360 of those hearings, attorneys requested transcripts for the purpose of writing briefs or for filing appeals.

State-employed court reporters were used for more than half of those hearings. For the rest, the state used contract employees.

The Joint Committee on Finance, a budget-writing panel, is scheduled to vote at a meeting starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate court-reporter requirements for those proceedings and allow testimony to instead be recorded.

Walker’s proposal calls for the elimination of four of the state’s seven workers’ compensation court reporters. The change, if approved, is expected to save the state more than $500,000. That amount includes $64,700 for fringe benefits, $169,100 for salaries, $255,000 for contracted court reporters and $66,200 in materials and services related to the affected court reporters.

When transcripts would be needed for appeals, it would be the three remaining workers’ comp court reporters who would transcribe the recordings that would be made of hearings, according to the Division of Hearings and Appeals.

Opponents of the proposal have contended the requirement that a court reporter record testimony in workers’ compensation hearings could make cases vulnerable to being undermined by inaccurate or inaudible recordings. They also contend that court reporters, unlike tape recorders, can help maintain decorum in proceedings by preventing lawyers and parties from interrupting each other.

Critics further maintain that court reporters help ensure that official records are accurate by asking people to speak up or repeat things when they are unintelligible and making sure every word in the record is attributed to the correct speaker. Opponents also note that transcriptions of electronic recording can take a long time and be costly.

So far, the biggest critics have been various groups of lawyers and court reporters. But the opposition has not stopped there.

Last week, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, insurance organizations, the Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Defense Counsel and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities all urged lawmakers to reject Walker’s proposal and keep the law as it is.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau, an independent state agency that reviews legislation, noted various concerns in its recent analysis of Walker’s proposal.

The bureau pointed out that to ensure electronic records are as accurate as those taken down by court reporters, the Division of Hearings and Appeals would have to buy equipment. The division, however, has not requested any additional money.

And consequences could be felt outside state government. The workers’ compensation rates that Wisconsin employers pay, for instance, might end up increasing if the proposed elimination of court reporters makes the workers’ compensation system more expensive to operate. Greater costs could be the result if cases end up taking longer to close, more case are filed or conflicts over the record lead to an increase in litigation.

The bureau also noted that Walker’s proposal does not require the use of electronic recordings, meaning administrative-law judges and parties could still request that a court reporter be present. For that reason, it remains unclear what sort of effect the governor’s proposal would have on the demand for court reporters’ services.

Besides a blanket acceptance or rejection of Walker’s proposal, lawmakers will have two options on Tuesday. They could choose to eliminate two workers’ compensation court reporters instead of four, the goal being to ensure there are reporters to cover the transcription and administrative work that would result from the statutory change.

Or they could reject Walker’s proposal and go on to direct the Division of Hearings and Appeals to conduct a study looking at the sort of audio and video recording that would be needed at workers’ compensation proceedings. The findings would be presented in July 2018, and the state’s Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council would then have an opportunity to provide its own recommendation.

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