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GOP lawmakers would fund fewer positions than Evers, Kaul at key agencies

Republican lawmakers also rejected requests by the state's top Democrats to fund Wisconsin's Office of School Safety

A woman in a blue lab coat works in a lab.
Work goes on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, at the Milwaukee Crime Lab in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Republicans on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee approved funding for new positions at the state’s crime lab and its licensing agency Thursday, but far fewer than requested by Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, the state’s top Democrats.

At the state Department of Justice, Republicans approved three new positions to staff the state’s crime labs, a far cry from the 16 requested by Kaul. Republicans also did not fund Wisconsin’s Office of School Safety, another top Kaul priority.

GOP lawmakers did approve a dozen new positions at the state Department of Safety and Professional Services, far less than the nearly 80 requested by Evers. That agency, which administers professional licenses, has come under criticism for its slow turnaround time, which Democrats say is a result of inadequate funding and Republicans blame on poor leadership.

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“My hope is that the Department of Safety and Professional Services gets it’s s— together,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the budget committee.

Lower staffing for state crime labs, no funding for school safety office

Earlier this week, Kaul joined with his former campaign rival, Republican Eric Toney, to mount a bipartisan push for increased criminal justice funding. Toney, who is Fond du Lac County’s district attorney, is also president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association.

The two called for lawmakers to fund 16 additional employees to staff state crime labs. In his budget proposal, Evers called for 14 additional staffers. On Thursday, Republicans on the budget-writing committee approved three.

Kaul also asked Wisconsin lawmakers to keep the Office of School Safety in operation using state funds instead of federal funds, which are set to run out. The office was created five years ago as a response to the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead. At the time, its creation received bipartisan support in the Legislature and was approved by then Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The office included a tip line for reporting incidents at schools ranging from threats of violence to bullying.

Kaul asked for $2.2 million in state funding for 16 positions. Evers called for $1 million for the office, and the creation of seven positions.

On Thursday, lawmakers declined to continue funding the office.

In a statement, Kaul said that would “gut” the office.

“Without prompt legislative action to remedy this issue, core services that office has provided — including the 24/7 tip line that has received thousands of contacts — will end,” he said. “At a time when we have a historic budget surplus, dismantling the Office of School Safety and discontinuing services that keep our kids safe is simply inexplicable.”

Conflict over addressing licensing backlog

Days after Assembly lawmakers approved a slate of bills aimed at streamlining licensing at the Department of Safety and Professional Services, Republicans on the budget committee also approved funding for seven positions to help with license processing. Evers had requested 16.

They also approved six office associates to help staff a call center for people going through the licensing process, less than half the 14 requested by the governor.

“It’s not enough,” Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, told Republicans. “You own any issues going forward.”

Republicans have blasted the agency and ordered an audit into its practices.

On Thursday, Born reiterated those criticisms of the agency’s leadership, which changed hands last summer.

“I’m hopeful that the new leadership is making improvements because it was clear that leadership was failing us a great deal in this agency,” he said.

Possible wage increases to address a prison staffing shortage on hold

Republicans didn’t move forward on pay increases for corrections workers on Thursday, saying they would deal with the issue in the near future.

Instead, they approved about $64 million over two years for some new positions, overtime pay and to cover increased inmate costs, as well as for a medication-assisted drug treatment program.

“We recognize the challenges that these folks that work in corrections face,” said Born. “We make some modest investments today and some things to help with that, and the bigger investments are in the near future.”

According to research from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin’s prisons are on track to become overcrowded this year, in part because courts are beginning to process a backlog of cases from throughout the pandemic. The average daily prison population is expected to reach pre-pandemic levels by 2025. Those same estimates suggest that the number of men incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons will likely exceed capacity later this year.

Incarceration costs — including food, clothing and bedding — have also increased, as have estimated costs for health care for incarcerated people. Health care costs have increased in part because of a shortage of medical staff, according to the Fiscal Bureau.

In his budget proposal, Evers requested $327.6 million over two years for pay increases for corrections staff positions, including guards and counselors.