Wisc. Gov. Walker Wants to Divert a Dedicated Fee Away from Legal Services to Poor

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April 27, 2011; Source: Appleton Post Crescent | Funding that pays for legal services for poor people is always in short supply, especially with the restrictions on how federal funding can and cannot be used by legal services organizations. Consequently, other funding mechanisms such as interest on lawyers’ trust accounts have been used to supplement government dollars.

In Wisconsin, the state has long dedicated a portion of the fee it charges for cases filed in the circuit courts to legal services for the poor. Only $4 of the $21.50 filing fee goes for legal services. Governor Scott Walker’s new budget plan calls for reallocating that tiny sum to the general fund, in theory so that the legislature could directly appropriate funds for the purpose of legal services as opposed to losing control of a dedicated revenue stream.

Let’s be real here. If the dedicated fee is “undedicated,” so to speak, how likely is it that the legislature would guarantee that at least that much money goes to legal aid for low-income people? The reason for a dedicated revenue stream for a function like this is exactly because it funds a service for a relatively politically powerless constituency whose resource would be lost to more powerful competitors. As the Post Crescent notes, if Governor Walker’s plan succeeds in “tak(ing) away legal aid for the poor . . . it’s hurting abused women, elderly scam victims, single parents and discrimination victims.”—Rick Cohen