Consumer advocates in Wisconsin say they have reason to feel paranoid about Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2011-13 budget.

In its extreme, for example, it may lead to tenants losing incentive to sue landlords for unfairly keeping security deposits, they say.

Or, it may simply be innocent agency housekeeping. Like every other interest group in the state with public funding or re-direction of authority on the line, they await budget details.

The budget moves unfair methods or practices rule-making power over such areas as construction, remodeling, real estate advertising and apartment and mobile home rental from the state agency that protects consumers to a new agency that regulates professionals.

Such a move, combined with the governor’s new thumbs-up or thumbs-down power over rules, could dilute or remove long-standing legal protections for consumers, said Mary Fons, a Stoughton lawyer who has worked exclusively in consumer law for 17 years.

Wisconsin offers unique legal remedies — such as allowing double damages and lawyer fees for renters who prove they have been swindled out of money by landlords — for consumers, said Fons, who worried such basic low-end legal solutions would be lost or rendered toothless.

"They provide really effective protection for consumers, and they might be lost," she said. "This whole list (of rule-making authority changes) can be seen by some as a gift to ... big supporters of the governor."

The proposed budget says the current rules apply until they are amended or repealed by the new department, which will combine the Department of Regulation and Licensing with portions of the Commerce Department, to be called the Department of Safety and Professional Services.

Michael McCabe, director of the donation-watching Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said "consumers and consumer lawyers have good reason to be worried" about potential rule changes.

The group charted $427,629 in campaign contributions to Walker and Republican legislators from real estate interests between January 2009 and October 18, 2010, in support of legislation to give the governor more authority over rule making. Nine special interest groups who supported the measure gave Walker $3.9 million, or 49 percent of his total large contributions.

"Restructuring — moving rule-making authority from one agency to another — should also be of concern to consumer protection advocates because it looks like it is being moved over to an agency that is more friendly to business and industry," McCabe said.

The DATCP secretary’s office referred questions on the change to the governor’s office, as did the secretary of the Department of Regulation and Licensing. The governor’s office did not respond to inquiries on this topic.

Dave Dudley, a lawyer at the Archibald Consumer Law Office, conceded the effects of shifting authority were potential, not yet real.

"Even if they re-enact the same or similar regulations (in the new department), if they don’t do it under the same statue, there would be no way to recover attorney fees," he said. Without that, the incentive to sue for damages is gone.

In many instances, those rules are the only clout a tenant has in disputing a landlord’s retention of security deposits.

Fons said the political climate in Wisconsin foreshadows an era when consumer protection needs stronger advocates.

"That is the hidden agenda of this budget," Fons said. "We are going to see far more people in financial distress, and the opportunities are going to increase for fraudsters and con artists to take advantage of those in financial straits."

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