J.B. Van Hollen: Prioritizing Public Safety

By J.B. Van Hollen, Wisconsin Attorney General.

Image"We must preserve our essential services, such as ... public safety." Those were Governor Doyle's comments on May 22, echoed by some legislators, when it was announced that the budget gap was widening and further cuts to state operations would be necessary. The message to the public was that public safety, already cut in the budget, would be protected from further cuts. The underlying principle was one I've advocated throughout my career: public safety is the priority of state and local government. Without this essential service, the good work of people, communities, and government is diminished and our liberties jeopardized.

Unfortunately, the Joint Finance Committee, led by two Madison-area legislators, didn't put this principle into practice. The Department of Justice is the state's preeminent law enforcement agency. Yet after the pronouncement that public safety should be protected from further cuts, on Memorial Day weekend and in their marathon midnight session last week, the Joint Finance Committee imposed an additional $6.4 million in new cuts on the Department of Justice - cuts beyond what the Governor or anyone else had publicly proposed.

In real terms, this means a significant reduction in our important public safety and law enforcement services. The cuts are to all agency functions. They are to the crime labs, which use DNA analysis and other forensics to identify offenders and exonerate the innocent. They are to our systems that provide officers on the street with real-time criminal history and other information, so they will know when they approach a situation that a temporary restraining order was placed on a domestic violence suspect a few hours before. They are to the Division of Criminal Investigation, which investigates crimes against children, homicides, drug trafficking organizations, and public corruption. They are cuts to our ability to serve crime victims. They are to our attorneys, who prosecute criminals and support prosecutions in the Supreme Court, who keep sexually violent offenders committed, who enforce important environmental and consumer protection laws, who defend state law, who recover taxpayer money diverted by Medicaid fraud - nearly $30 million since I took office, and who enforce the settlement agreement with tobacco companies that brings in $150 million to the state a year.

I understand these tight fiscal times. In good times or bad, government should be managed efficiently. We've done our work in a fiscally responsible manner. Before there was ever a budget crisis, I returned $1.2 million to the treasury. I also returned my personally assigned state vehicle.

And I understand that not everyone prioritizes public safety above other government services, as I do. I am fully prepared to manage cuts to DOJ that have been imposed on other public safety agencies like the Department of Corrections.

Reasonable people can disagree on what government should do and how those responsibilities should be funded. But reasonable people do not say that they will protect public safety from the most drastic of the cuts, exempt some public safety agencies from that cut, and impose it on the state's preeminent public safety agency. Particularly when that agency works as well as the Department of Justice does. Reasonable people do not claim to protect public safety and then ask Justice to absorb almost 8% of the anticipated personnel layoffs while the agency makes up less than 1% of the state workforce.

I can only surmise that it wasn't reason that motivated the Madison-area leaders of the Joint Finance Committee to treat DOJ differently than public safety agencies like the Department of Corrections. It was partisanship.

I think public safety is not a partisan issue. Perhaps those motivated by partisan games thought they would be scoring political points by taking a pound of flesh from the only state agency led by a Republican. But when they swing, they don't hit me. They hit the crime victims we aim to protect.

Thankfully, I don't think that the Madison-area legislators masterminding the Joint Finance Committee speak for all state legislators. There are members of both parties who recognize the importance of public safety. I am hopeful these members will do their part to ensure that partisan politics isn't the end-all of budget policy. Let them know if you agree with me.


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