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Budget committee set to take first votes on 2017-19 spending plan

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee is set to resume its work Thursday on the 2017-19 state budget after a two-month hiatus. 

For the second budget in a row, lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee have rejected Gov. Scott Walker’s call to change oversight and eliminate the state’s judicial watchdogs.

Walker proposed in his 2017-19 state spending plan to move the Wisconsin Judicial Commission under the control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and eliminate the state Judicial Council. The Joint Finance Committee stripped both proposals from the budget on Monday, which they also did two years ago.

The votes were among the first the committee is taking to amend Walker’s $76 billion state budget proposal.

Lawmakers on Monday also put off voting on Walker’s proposal to increase salaries for judges by about 4 percent in the second year of the budget, similar to proposed raises for other state employees. Walker also wants to create a new process for approving future pay increases, also similar to how state employee raises are approved.

The Joint Finance Committee’s co-chairmen said Monday it’s likely the committee’s conservative majority will approve a 2 percent increase.

In Walker’s proposal, the money for raises would no longer come from the state employee compensation plan, but rather from other court revenue sources, similar to how the University of Wisconsin System funds employee salaries.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack has asked the committee to keep judicial pay within the state’s compensation plan. The courts also have asked for a 16 percent salary increase for judges and justices over two years.

Current annual wages for Wisconsin judges are $131,187 for circuit court, $139,059 for the appellate court and $147,403 for the Supreme Court, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The state ranks 38th in Supreme Court and circuit court pay and 33rd in appellate court pay among the states when adjusted for cost of living, according to the National Center for State Courts.

The budget committee’s vote to reject Walker’s proposal to change oversight and eliminate the state Judicial Commission and Judicial Council comes after both the executive director of the commission and Roggensack have said the move could create potential conflicts of interest and won’t save money.

The commission polices allegations of judicial misconduct. Walker has said consolidating it under the Supreme Court would create “administrative efficiencies.”

The Judicial Council has 21 members who study the efficiency of the court system and recommend procedural changes. It employs a full-time lawyer.

Walker proposed eliminating the council and moving the lawyer to the Supreme Court, which could then create its own council outside of the statutory requirement.

Roggensack also opposed that move, saying it wouldn’t save money and “overlooks the significant work that the council does for both the Legislature and the courts.”

Labor commissioners reduced

Also on Monday, lawmakers voted to approve Walker’s proposal to reduce the number of commissioners on the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission from three to one. They also approved cutting staff at WERC from seven to five positions.

The commission is charged with settling employment disputes. Its workload has decreased since 2011 after the passage of Act 10, which essentially eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees.

Assembly transportation plan

John Nygren, R-Marinette, said Monday that Assembly Republicans’ plan to address the billion-dollar shortfall in the state’s transportation fund will be unveiled as soon as this week. He said the plan, which Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, is leading in writing, will not increase the tax burden on Wisconsin residents.

Budget co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said Senate Republicans look forward to reviewing the plan.

Though Monday’s committee action reflected the first votes on Walker’s budget, the Republican leaders of the committee already announced sweeping changes to Walker’s 2017-19 spending plan by removing all 83 non-fiscal policy items and scrapping his entire transportation budget proposal.

The committee is expected to take on those bigger-ticket items over the coming weeks.

No additional dates have been set yet.

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