The Wisconsin Senate has passed a bill to restore raises for state public defenders.
Senate Bill 62 allows the Public Defender Board to provide merit-based pay raises under the assistant state public defender pay-progression plan in fiscal year 2021-22.
The state Senate unanimously passed the measure during its floor session on Tuesday. Before taking a vote, Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, noted that the public defenders have been waiting years for their pay to be on par with state prosecutors.
“It’s a problem if people don’t have access to adequate public defense,” Larson said. “I would hope that these things have parity and go up at the same rate in the future.”
The pay discrepancy between state public defenders and prosecutors started with the state’s 2019-21 budget. Lawmakers passed a budget that provided merit-based pay progression to prosecutors, but not public defenders.
The 2021 bill has the same goals as a piece of legislation that unanimously passed the state Assembly last year, but the pandemic prevented the Senate from holding a vote on the amended measure.
Earlier in the day, the Assembly Committee on Judiciary held a public hearing for the bill’s assembly counterpart. Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said the 2021 bill doesn’t ask for any additional funding for the raises because the State Public Defender’s Office is able to cover the pay increases for the remaining months until the 2021-22 budget would go into effect.
The SPD is able to cover the cost because 78 employees left the public defender’s office since March.
“We are able to self-fund this session’s version of the bill due to the increased staff turnover, as well as the temporary impact of the pandemic on the number of cases,” said Kelli Thompson, state public defender. “Using these savings now, we have the opportunity to fix this disparity without appropriating new funds.”
Thompson said restoring pay parity is critical to ensuring the office doesn’t lose any more public defenders. The bill would also set a level playing field for the two offices going into the new 2021-23 budget.
“Traditionally, those pay progression levels have been moving at the same steps, whether you’re a prosecutor or a public defender,” Loudenbeck said.
Rep. Ron Tusler, the judiciary committee chair, said he hopes to hold a vote on the Assembly bill next week. Follow @“WLJreporter”