What the State Budget Cuts
to Consumer Protection
Could Mean for You
by Bill Oemichen
One of the more controversial issues for the Wisconsin Legislature’s
Joint Finance Committee to handle was the Governor’s request
that the state’s Consumer Protection Program be transferred
from the Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection
(DATCP) to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ). For years,
this has been a thorny issue between the governor, the attorney
general, and Legislature.
Former Governor Tommy Thompson argued DATCP was
the logical location for the Consumer Protection Program since
it has a successful 74-year track record as the state’s
primary consumer protection agency. Governor Thompson also argued
there should be a separation of investigators at DATCP from prosecutors
at DOJ in the same way police and local prosecutors are kept separate.
Jim Doyle (then the attorney general) argued his office would
be the tougher agency on consumer fraud, and that it made sense
to have the entire program under DOJ’s jurisdiction for
The Legislature stepped into the battle in 1995
and transferred DOJ’s investigators and Consumer Protection
Hotline to join DATCP’s investigators and hotline. According
to the Legislature, this move saved the state more than $600,000
per year. Since then, by most accounts, the DATCP program has
been working well, with a record $18.9 million returned to consumers
and the state treasury in 2002 through fines, forfeitures, and
restitution. This compares to an annual state Consumer Protection
Program cost of $2.6 million.
In late May, the Joint Finance Committee voted
12–4 against transferring Consumer Protection to DOJ. However,
the committee also voted to eliminate more than 13 positions at
DATCP and five at DOJ for a “savings” of more than
$2 million during the 2003–2005 biennium. The DATCP reduction
would reduce Consumer Protection staffing by more than 33 percent.
The question now is what this reduction will mean for consumers.
Last year, about 16,000 written complaints were
filed with DATCP, another 70,000 questions came by telephone,
and 104,000 consumer contacts came through the Internet. Even
with DATCP’s current 39 Consumer Protection staff, it’s
quite clear DATCP already has a tremendous workload. Certainly,
a 33-percent staffing reduction will reduce the level of personal
service the average consumer may expect to receive from DATCP.
This will then decrease the state’s effectiveness because
it’s likely consumers will contact DATCP less if the Consumer
Protection Hotline has more busy signals. Fewer complaints will
mean less evidence for DATCP to use to successfully investigate
and prosecute con artists.
The negative impacts continue. Currently, consumers
have access to four regional Consumer Protection Offices in Eau
Claire, Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Madison. A staffing reduction
may eliminate regional offices outside of Madison, making it harder
for consumers to personally visit an office for assistance. More
importantly, this may also hurt the close working relationships
Consumer Protection investigators have with local law enforcement,
prosecutors, senior advocates, etc. Finally, the Consumer Protection
Hotline is currently toll-free, but some believe DATCP should
charge consumers for advice.
Regardless of where Consumer Protection should
be located, it seems clear the real impact of the continuing debate
is a dramatic reduction in the ability of the state to effectively
combat consumer protection fraud, and this will mean consumers
will have to do more to protect themselves.