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
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
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
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."