The short arm of the law in Wisconsin: State prosecutors, paid like serfs, leave in droves

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

[img_assist|nid=127762|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=144|height=126]Starting in 2003 and continuing under the Walker administration, the State of Wisconsin has been nothing but miserly in paying state prosecutors who oversee criminal cases in every county. Result: A worsening shortage of legal talent that makes it easier for some of our state's baddest boys to skate or get plea bargained deals because of overburdened courts and districts attorney.

The Appleton Post Crescent reports in today's edition about greater than usual departures among prosecutors serving Brown County. It reviewed a study from the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. Here's the critical passage, low in the story, that tells you just how dysfunctional and self-destructive Wisconsin state government has become over the past decade under bipartisan government now under the unitary Walker regime:

In Minnesota, assistant county attorneys generally earned $100,000 per year and in metropolitan counties pay was $115,000, according to the La Follette study. The median income for Wisconsin assistant district attorneys is $56,150.

That's right: A big part of the problem attracting and keeping legally savvy prosecutors stems from Wisconsin's very stingy approach to what used to be collective bargaining. So no, those allegedly bad, bad big labor bosses did not bargain huge pay increases for their members who are state prosecutors. Mainly because the state all but refused to bargain in good faith, before and since Walker, both with the prosecutors and most other represented state employees:

Starting July 2003, pay adjustments were removed from the collective bargaining agreement between the state and Association of State Prosecutors.

And now, thanks to Walker, except for cops and firefighters there's really no public employee bargaining in Wisconsin at all, so prosecutors and other public employees looking for fair market wages have to depend on the increasingly unsound judgement of political leaders. For most state employees, in fact, compensation even before Walker's huge grab-back was below that paid for comparable work in the private sector.

Let's not forget, either, that public employees in Wisconsin have long been legally forbidden to go out on strike, even when the state has sat on its butt and refused to bargain with them in good faith, and even when that bargaining was a matter of law, and even when, before Walker, it included compensation as an issue for negotiation.

The situation is so bad that even Scott Walker realizes the prosecutor brain drain is a disaster already, so the otherwise stingy governor last year included $2 million in his initial two-year budget proposal to address the turnover issue. That amount would have covered some of the existing additional costs of trying to recruit wary prosecutors to state service although it wouldn't have done much about low pay. Nevertheless, Republican legislators, feeling even more stingy than Walker, nixed the funds.

The Post Crescent reported that, according to the the La Follette School study, annual turnover among assistant district attorneys is running at 18.4 percent, more than double the usual rate for all public employees. But even other public employees are leaving state service in greater than normal numbers since Walker took charge.

Meanwhile, criminal caseloads have been increasing statewide (although, Republicans haven't gotten around to noting that criminal cases including homicide continue a downward trend in Milwaukee). That's a functional breakdown in our criminal courts. So much for the Republican trope of law-and-order government. They want to talk about it, but they simply don't want to pay for it.

You can drown government in a bathtub, but you'd better realize that you won't get what you don't pay for. Right now, Wisconsin state prosecutors are getting the shaft and, increasingly, giving the state the shaft in return. What's the problem? At the moment, Scott Walker and his legislative enablers in the state Capitol are the problem.