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Budget committee could decide on juvenile justice funding, lawsuits

Budget committee could decide on juvenile justice funding, lawsuits

Joint Finance Committee

State Rep. John Nygren and state Sen. Alberta Darling, both Republicans, lead the Joint Finance Committee.

The Legislature’s budget committee is set to meet Wednesday to take up a $184 million request to fund new detention centers as part of a 2018 bill to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system, as well as consider three lawsuits the committee has final approval over.

The decision lawmakers make with regard to the Department of Corrections’ request for millions of dollars in grant funding for juvenile justice centers may determine whether the new facilities, set to replace the embattled Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake youth prisons, are completed by a July 2021 deadline.

Following years of allegations of abuse by staff against inmates, lawmakers in 2018 voted to shutter the youth prison by January 2021 and replace it with smaller, more regional state- and county-run facilities. Lawmakers have already pushed back that deadline to July 2021, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has warned further delays might be necessary if lawmakers don’t come up with more funding for the projects.

The Department of Corrections wants the budget committee to approve about $111 million in funding for four new county-run centers and $73 million for two state-run facilities for more serious offenders.

Under the plan the DOC is recommending, the initial county-run centers would be located in Dane, Brown, Racine and Milwaukee counties and would provide between 111 and 125 beds. The most expensive plan is from Brown County, which wants $41 million in grant funding, while the cheapest is in Dane County, which wants about $6 million. If lawmakers choose to approve the request, they’d be about $31 million short, meaning they’d need to provide the funds via new legislation or use funds already approved to be borrowed for general purposes.

The DOC is also recommending the state build two state-run facilities in Outagamie County and the city of Milwaukee. Together, the facilities would cost $73 million and house 64 beds for more serious juvenile offenders. No funds are specifically authorized for the state-run facilities, so lawmakers would have to come up with the full $73 million to approve the project.

In the state budget, however, Evers directed previously approved borrowing authority to the state-run facilities, but that money would need to go through an approval process and still falls short of the funding needed.

Lawsuit settlements

Also on Wednesday, the committee is set to consider proposed settlements in three lawsuits the state Department of Justice is involved with. Under laws passed by Republicans in 2018 after former Gov. Scott Walker lost re-election but before Evers took office, the Republican-controlled budget committee has oversight authority over certain settlement agreements the DOJ may want to reach.

The DOJ and Democrats have lamented the laws as seeking to micromanage the new Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, while Republicans have argued it gives them a seat at the table in important legal matters facing the state.

So far, Kaul and Republicans have been unable to agree to terms for budget committee lawmakers to confidentially review cases. The DOJ, however, was able to provide lawmakers with information on the three cases before the committee Wednesday because the defendants have agreed to make the settlement terms public.

  • One case involves Dave’s Sewer Service in Waupaca, accused of improperly dumping sewage on hay crops.
  • Another is a federal lawsuit in which the state and federal governments are seeking to force Superior Refining Co. to mitigate harm from emissions that resulted from an April 2018 explosion at the company’s Superior refinery.
  • The third involves the University of Wisconsin System Regents’ lawsuit against former UW-Oshkosh officials Richard Wells and Tom Sonnleitner. They were accused of illegally funneling $11 million to the UW-Oshkosh Foundation to help it execute building projects and illegally promising to back the foundation’s loans. The foundation ultimately defaulted on the loans and filed for bankruptcy. Wells and Sonnleitner each pleaded guilty last month to misconduct in office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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