Thursday, April 14, 2011

Partisanship vs. Public Safety: Assembly Republicans Ignore Crime Victims

Buried in this week's chaos report from Madison is the demand from Gregory Gracz -- Governor Walker's hand-picked employment relations secretary who was once the focus of a sexual harassment controversy -- that Wisconsin prosecutors take six additional furlough days before the end of June, a move that violates the state's contract with the Association of State Prosecutors which caps furlough days at five per year and, if carried out, would wreak havoc on the state's already understaffed district attorney offices.

Assistant district attorneys took ten furlough days in the past two years but refused state demands, beginning with former Gov. Jim Doyle, to take the additional six days, pointing out that the they were the only employees who were furloughed in 2003 after which the state agreed to place a cap on furlough days.  In addition, the state's own figures show the state is short well over 100 prosecutor positions and young prosecutors often work side jobs due to low pay.  Further, unlike state public defenders who can farm out some of their work, prosecutors have no limit on the number of assigned cases.

Gracz has threatened to cut prosecutors to 80% part-time status, another contract violation, if they don't cave in to the state's demands.  He fears that if the prosecutors don't take the additional furlough days other state unions with "me too" clauses in their contracts could demand payment for six furlough days, costing the state an estimated $11 million, Gracz said.

Assemblyman John Steinbrink (D-Pleasant Prairie) authored a nonbinding resolution which reads: "Resolved by the assembly, That the governor, the secretary of administration, and the director of the office of state employment relations cease and desist all actions relating to requiring unpaid leaves of absence or reducing the FTE status for any state employee who is an assistant district attorney for the remainder of the 20102011 fiscal year."

Steinbrink accurately pointed out that even with current staff shortages and furloughs Wisconsin cititizens who have been victims of nonviolent crimes have had to wait to have their cases charged or in some instances no charges have been filed.

Assemblyman Robin Vos (R-Burlington), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, aptly noted that in the last session the Democratic majority ignored pleas from district attorneys that the furloughs would devastate their offices. 

Vos is mostly correct except that Steinbrink and Senator Robert Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) tried to tack on a $5 surcharge on some traffic fines to resolve the problem but party leaders sat on the bill until it died.

Still Vos, who argued in favor of the prosecutors last year, did a turnabout when, if he was correct that political posturing was the only motivation for Democrats, he could have called the bluff and supported the nonbinding resolution.  In brief, he had an opportunity to rise above it and didn't. The Republican controlled assembly this afternoon refused to even take up the resolution on a 39-56 vote with only one Republican, Jeremy Thiesfeldt, bucking the party line. 

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