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MADISON - Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen issued the following statement in response to Representative Barca and Senator Vinehout's request to use Department of Justice funds to partially fund the district attorney program:
I remain very concerned about funding for district attorneys and other public safety agencies, including the Department of Justice. Public safety is a priority of state government, and needs to be a budget priority as well. District attorneys and their assistants are front-line public safety personnel, and their work is vital to providing justice in Wisconsin.
The district attorneys budget needs more than a one-time funding patch; it needs permanent funding solutions that continually supports not only the existing program, but also makes up some or all of the program's chronic understaffing.
In the last budget, the Legislature cut the District Attorneys program by 8.1% while state spending increased by 6.2%. It did so after the Legislative Audit Bureau indicated in 2007 that the District Attorneys program needed 117 additional prosecutors to address a caseload that hasn't gotten any lighter in the interim. That assistant district attorneys are now facing layoffs in addition to mounting caseloads shouldn't come as a surprise. It is the direct result of failing to prioritize the important public safety functions that District Attorneys serve every day to make our communities safer.
Prior to Representative Barca and Senator Vinehout's news release calling on me to fund the District Attorneys with the Department of Justice's budget, I had a chance to speak with them. Unfortunately, none of the facts that I told them about the Department of Justice's budget appear in their press release.
The settlement funds identified in the report are necessary for the Department of Justice to meet its current and expected budget obligations for this biennium, including anticipated lapses. There is no slush fund waiting to be used. As the Governor stated when he vetoed a proposal that would have used Department of Justice funds to pay salaries of public defenders and assistant district attorneys, "[i]n addition to reductions documented in the budget, the department [of justice] will also be subject to unallocated lapses." Absent relief from these lapses, using these settlement funds to fund the District Attorneys would only further strain the Department of Justice's ability to provide core public safety services.
Make no mistake, we are working to make every dollar count. The Department of Justice is operating under a budget that contained approximately $11 million in cuts to existing programs once expected lapses are factored in. To manage these cuts, the Department of Justice has approximately 80 vacancies - about 13.5% of its authorized base - and has required eight days of furloughs from all employees. If settlement funds could have been used to alleviate the need to have a 16.5% effective vacancy rate, we would have done so. These funds help the Department manage its budget. Taking these funds out of the Department of Justice may very well increase this vacancy rate - possibly necessitating layoffs and further compromising the Department of Justice's ability to fulfill its core public safety and law enforcement mission.
Most importantly, the Department of Justice itself is a key public safety agency. Public safety will not be promoted by shifting insufficient funds amongst public safety agencies; what is needed is to acknowledge the priority of public safety and fund other government functions and 'special projects' less.
It is important to recognize that all settlement funds are expended consistent with a court order and are approved by the Department of Administration. One key point made in the report issued today is that since I've been Attorney General, when we've spent funds, we have done so for law enforcement and public safety purposes consistent with the Department of Justice's operations and mission. For example, when federal funding disappeared for methamphetamine enforcement, settlement funds were used to maintain a vigorous enforcement program to attack a drug whose use devastates individuals, their families, and our communities.