Democrats restore funding 
to Wis. Justice Department

June 11, 2009

MADISON - Assembly Democrats decided to restore $5.4 million in cuts to the state Justice Department's budget Wednesday after Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen mounted an all-out blitz to get the money back.

Van Hollen, a Republican, spent days complaining the cuts would cripple his agency and put public safety at risk. He blasted the Democratic leaders of the Legislature's budget-writing committee, saying they didn't cut any other public safety agencies as deep. He accused them of trying to hurt him politically at his department's expense.

It looks like the pushback worked. Democrats decided during a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon to give Van Hollen the money. They also agreed to restore another $1 million the finance committee took from DOJ to cover raises for assistant district attorneys and public defenders. They said Van Hollen could choose whether to hand the money over to the lawyers.

Agency spokesman Bill Cosh said it's too early to know if Van Hollen would still give that money up. But the attorney general issued a statement thanking Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan and members of both parties.

"Public safety is the first priority of government, and it must be a budget priority as well," Van Hollen said.

Sheridan said in a statement public safety is a top priority of Democrats "everywhere."

Assembly Democrats are in a precarious position with the state budget. They control the chamber 52-46. It takes 50 votes to pass the budget, making every vote critical. But Sheridan spokeswoman Rebekah Sweeney denied the giveback was designed to win Republican votes.

"The DOJ cuts were something a lot of our members were concerned about," Sweeney said.

The leaders of the Joint Finance Committee, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, have been feuding with Van Hollen for months.

They're upset Van Hollen filed a lawsuit before the November elections demanding state elections officials verify the identity of tens of thousands of voters, claiming Van Hollen was out to disenfranchise voters. They're also unhappy with a DOJ report police have said exaggerated the gang presence in northeastern Wisconsin.

The committee cut about $13.5 million from DOJ during deliberations on the state's 2009-11 budget, or about 10 percent of the agency's budget, according to DOJ officials. Van Hollen was particularly incensed at the $5.4 million slashed during an all-night session in May.

Pocan, who led the push to cut DOJ, countered all state agencies are taking deep cuts as lawmakers try to fill the state's $6.6 billion shortfall.

He noted DOJ got an increase in its last budget for more DNA analysts at the state crime labs and Van Hollen gave $1.2 million back to the state last year. He said that proves the attorney general is frugal and can manage the additional cuts.

But Van Hollen swung back, saying he's already holding 45 position vacant. The $5.4 million cuts would result in 80 additional layoffs that could result in evidence backlogs at the crime labs and hurt the agency's ability to help local police and prosecutors on big cases.

Van Hollen and his administration drummed up media reports on the cuts wherever they could and urged Justice employees to lobby their legislators, saying it could save their jobs. Van Hollen spoke personally with Sheridan by phone last week.

Pocan said in a statement Wednesday afternoon Democrats "gained a fuller understanding of the impact of some of the proposed cuts to the Department of Justice."


Associated Press