You might want to sit down. In today's My Two Cents I am asking the state government to start charging for a free service. Consider this part of "doing my share" to help the state get through its current financial mess. But it is clear that the time has come for Wisconsin to start charging for convenience of looking up Circuit Court records on-line.
There's been some gnashing of teeth in Madison this week as Governor Scott Walker has proposed cutting funding for the popular Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program most commonly known as CCAP. CCAP has been a godsend for reporters and researchers--allowing us to access any county's court records from our newsroom computers, rather than having to run down to the courthouse and asking a clerk to pull multiple files--or having to sit through dozens of un-related court hearings to get results on a sentencing or arraignment for one high-profile case that we might be covering. Anyway, rather than seeing a website that averages two to three million hits A DAY as a potential source of cost-covering revenue, the department that oversees CCAP will instead likely choose to shut down the whole thing.
There is precedent in charging for on-line access to court records. The federal government charges for access to its PACER on-line system. We are charged eight-cents per download on the site. You set up a password protected account--give them a check card number--and PACER charges you quarterly for the downloads you racked up. Is it a hassle? Sure. Is it easier than having to drive to Milwaukee or spend an hour on hold trying to get ahold of a clerk to pull a file and relay information to you? It certainly is.
A nominal charge of just two cents per download on CCAP multiplied by two-million hits a day would generate $14.6-million dollars annually--more than enough to fund the website. And don't start in on the "unfairly limiting access to public records" argument--because everything you would have to pay for on-line would still be available for free at the courthouse. An added benefit could be the nosy neighbor who checks to see who she knows that might be in trouble with the law or getting a divorce might decide a couple of bucks a month is too much to pay for "the dirt".
So let's make CCAP pay for itself from now on--so that a convenient and popular program can stay in place--and so that precious cash can be used for things we absolutely "need".