MADISON, Wis. — As work on the next state budget continues, lawmakers met Tuesday for the first time since learning Wisconsin will wrap up the fiscal year with a slightly smaller surplus than expected.
The state’s criminal justice system was on the agenda as budget-writing committee members found some major consensus.
Though Republicans have stripped many of Gov. Tony Evers' proposals out of the spending plan already, funding for public defenders and prosecutors was an area where lawmakers went beyond what the governor called for.
The starting wage for those state-funded attorneys could increase to $36 an hour under the GOP plan, which amounts to a dollar more per hour than Gov. Evers had proposed. While the pay bump still needs approval from the full Legislature and the governor himself, it was unanimously passed Tuesday by members of the Joint Finance Committee.
“It’s strange when a prosecutor and a public defender can find agreement, but we both ask you today to return a verdict and fully support and fund the criminal justice system in Wisconsin,” State Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, who previously served as a public defender, told his colleagues.
State Rep. Goyke and State Rep. Tip McGuire, D-Kenosha, both know what it is like to be a state-funded attorney, having seen the mounting caseloads and staffing struggles.
“I have multiple former colleagues, from when I was an assistant district attorney, who ultimately left the job to go to high-paid jobs that they are less satisfied with personally, but they did so because they and their family could not afford to continue in this position,” McGuire explained.
The approved starting pay bump for public defenders and assistant district attorneys would amount to $75,000 a year. Currently, with the minimum rate just above $27 an hour, those new to the field are bringing home about $57,000.
Lawmakers also voted to approve raising the private bar rate from $70 to $100 dollars an hour.
“To be on par with the dean appointment, the court appointment, is going to really incentivize people to take cases early, get the justice done that needs to be done,” State Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay, who operates his own legal practice, said.
From time to time, the public defender’s office will hire private attorneys to keep up with caseload or weigh in with specific expertise, which has been harder to do lately with wages that are not competitive for those who run their own businesses.
“Justice should be fair, it should be timely, and I believe the investments we’re making today will enhance the probability that our justice will be provided on a timely basis,” Co-Chair State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said of Tuesday’s omnibus vote.
The plan also included funds targeted to specific parts of the state to add district attorney positions in Sauk and Kenosha counties based on demand. Part-time positions in Langlade, Oneida and Ozaukee counties will also become full-time.