The Potluck

Public defenders, court staff call for a special session to approve funding for raises

By: - May 25, 2022 3:57 pm

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Teamsters Local 320, the union representing the state’s public defenders, court reporters and other court staff, is calling on Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers to return to the Capitol to approve a public safety budget and fund a contract with pay increases or risk further strain on the judiciary branch. 

Earlier this year, there had been bipartisan agreement on a roughly 50% increase in the budget of the Board of Public Defense after public defenders voted to strike for the first time in state history over low pay and high caseloads.

The public defenders agreed to a new, two-year contract with only modest pay increases having secured a provision that the Board would have to reopen negotiations over the pay scale if the Legislature gave them more money.

But legislators failed to follow through.

The Legislature adjourned this week, failing to approve extra money for schools, public safety and courts, leaving billions of dollars unspent. Walz and leaders of the GOP-controlled Senate and DFL-majority House had broad agreement on a spending plan but were unable to finish before the constitutional adjournment.  

House leadership, Walz and a bevy of interest groups are pushing for a special legislative session while Senate Republicans are resisting, suggesting the next crop of legislators next year decide how to spend the state’s multi-billion surplus. 

“It is vitally important for the governor to call a special session,” said Teamsters Local 320 president Sami Gabriel. 

Gabriel said the judiciary branch has toiled through disruptions caused by the pandemic, which ballooned caseloads. Public defenders and court staff are leaving for better-paying opportunities with other employers, members of the union said. Higher wages would also help attract more applicants, they said.

Public defenders often earn far less than prosecutors, who are generally employed by counties. An assistant county attorney at the top of the pay scale earns $20,000 more a year on average than a top-earning assistant public defender: $135,607 versus $115,466.

“We need this budget to be passed so we can attract qualified (court) reporters, and to keep the current reporters that we have,” said Ashley Welz, a court reporter. 

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