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The Third Branch

Court budget now in hands of Legislature

By Bill Walker, Budget and Policy Director

On Feb. 3, Gov. Scott Walker released his 2013-15 biennial budget plan, which was introduced in identical form in the Legislature as Senate Bill 21 and Assembly Bill 21. The budget bill includes a variety of changes to the Supreme Court’s budget request that was submitted in October 2014, as well as several new provisions that would affect the court system.

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson testified about some of the proposed changes before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance on March 2. The committee is now developing its version of the budget to be considered by the Legislature.

The Supreme Court had requested new funding in several areas of need. These requests included bringing judicial salaries in line with peer states, increasing county funding for supporting circuit courts, funding to speed progress towards eFiling and an additional staff attorney for the Court of Appeals. With one exception, the court system’s funding proposals were not included in the governor’s budget.

The court’s request for $2.1 million in one-time funds to implement eFiling in all case types statewide was denied. However, the bill would provide some new revenue for the circuit court automation program (CCAP) by removing certain exemptions from existing fees and surcharges on certain types of violations. The change would provide an estimated $750,000 per year in revenue available for CCAP, including the eFiling project if pursued.

The budget bill also includes a first step toward improving judicial salaries – the establishment of a Judicial Compensation Commission. Every two years, the commission would make salary recommendations to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations, which sets the employee compensation plan for state government and would have final say.

The budget bill also would make changes to how the court system’s funding is allocated. The bill would combine what are now separate appropriations for circuit court support payments, payments for guardian ad litem services, and reimbursement for court interpreters, into a single appropriation.

This is referred to as a “block grant approach.” The bill would similarly combine the State Law Library’s appropriations with those for the Director’s Office. The stated intent of combining these now-separate appropriations is to increase flexibility for the Director of State Courts in administering court system spending.

In a related change, the bill would shift funding for state-employed court reporters from its current sum-sufficient appropriation to the new proposed circuit court costs appropriation. Court reporters would thus be funded from the same appropriation that funds circuit court operations, guardians ad litem, and court interpreters.

Among concerns identified in this proposed change would be the omission of statutory language authorizing the Director of State Courts to pay salaries to court reporters and a shortage in funding under the new appropriation. The governor’s office has indicated it intends to address some concerns related to court reporters in a list of technical corrections to be submitted to the Legislature.

The bill would also repeal most of the statutory language that currently governs payments to counties. In particular, it would remove the funding formula and auditing requirements. Under the bill, how and when to release circuit court support payments would be managed by the Director of State Courts and overseen by the Supreme Court.

The budget bill now before the Legislature would also change oversight of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, currently an independent commission given administrative support from the Department of Administration. Under the bill, the commission would instead be placed under the direction of the Supreme Court, with administrative support provided by the Director’s Office. This proposal has raised some concern over the independence of judicial investigations.

Another proposal in the budget bill would eliminate the Judicial Council, effective July 1. The council was established in 1951 to provide support to each branch of government by studying and making recommendations relating to court pleading, practice and procedure; and organization, jurisdiction and methods of administration and operation of Wisconsin courts.

The Legislature has set a series of public hearings around the state. The court system’s budget office will continue to monitor the progress of court-related budget items.

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