May 12, 2015

Spring cleaning turns up news nuggets ranging from guns to schnapps

It’s springtime, a time for housekeeping. The columnist is cleaning off his desk, emptying his inbox. Here are a few unused news nuggets that seem a shame to throw away:

So long, government jobs: Public sector employment in Wisconsin has fallen to its lowest level in more than 20 years, according to a largely overlooked analysis of census data by the Wisconsin Budget Project, the research arm of nonpartisan Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

Wisconsin had 47.8 full-time equivalent state and local employees per 1,000 residents in 2013, down from a high of 53.3 in 2001. That translates into 32,000 fewer government workers than if the ratio had stayed at 2001 levels. Wisconsin ranked 42nd among states in its share of public workers, and its average monthly payroll was below the national average.

But the trend may be ending. While U.S. Census Bureau numbers for 2014 won’t be available for some time, federal labor statistics indicate a slight rebound in Wisconsin’s public sector employment last year.

Background checks yield results: Democratic state lawmakers backing a bill to require background checks for nearly all gun sales, including at gun shows and private transactions, admit it has little chance of passing, despite huge levels of public support. A similar bill last session did not even get a hearing.

Democrats allege the bill died because their Republican colleagues caved to the wishes of pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association. Republicans frame it differently, saying they don’t think conducting these checks is worth the trouble. But the state Justice Department’s annual reports on its licensing of state residents to carry concealed weapons suggest otherwise.

The most recent report, for 2014, shows that 552 of the 37,550 concealed carry license applications received last year were denied due to background checks. This included 104 persons with felony convictions who are not legally able to possess a gun, much less a concealed one.

During the past four years, the Justice Department has denied nearly 3,400 concealed carry license applications, and suspended or revoked 2,400 licenses. Yet all of those people could still buy guns from certain sellers without undergoing the hassle of a background check.

Hold the guns, send lawyers and money: A new study from the Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based nonprofit group, concludes that Wisconsin has the nation’s lowest rate of compensation for lawyers assigned to represent indigent defendants.

The state’s rate for these appointments is $40 an hour, which has not risen since 1995, when the Wisconsin Legislature reduced it from $50 an hour.

“While $40 an hour may sound like a lot of money to the average person,” the report says, “it is not given the requirements of representing accused persons.” It lists such costs as office rent, legal research services, support staff and liability insurance.

The report argues that Wisconsin’s rate drives quality lawyers away and forces others to cut corners, to where the poor may not be getting the “effective assistance of counsel” to which they are constitutionally entitled. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2011 acknowledged this concern but rejected a proposed hike, citing “a particularly challenging budgetary environment.”

The Sixth Amendment Center, which calls for bumping the state’s rate to $85 an hour, takes issue with such reasoning, saying this critical component of the Bill of Rights was “created to prevent the tyrannical impulses of big government from taking away an individual’s liberty without the process being fair. It does not solely apply in good economic times.”

Prepared for anything: Among the gifts reported by Gov. Scott Walker on his newly filed Statement of Economic Interests for 2014: BCM customized carbine rifle, snowshoes and poles, collection of pocket knives, pad of paper, decorated drum top, lens cleaning cloth, hand warmer, can holder, face paint, Band-Aids, MoJo scent stick, bag of beans, Post-It notes, cactus jelly, pancake mix, basket of cheeses, schnapps, beer.