Photo by Tanner Cole
It was July 2, late afternoon, on the cusp of a holiday weekend. The reporter who called began reading changes to the state’s open records law included in an omnibus motion just unveiled by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
I almost couldn’t believe it.
“Please don’t tell me there’s more,” I kept saying, after she read each item. There was.
The proposed changes would exempt legislative communications from the law; shut down public access to bill drafting files; and specify that the Legislature can shield any record by rule or policy.
Another change would exempt “deliberative materials” created in the process of making law or public policy from disclosure. This would include opinions and analyses prepared at public expense at all levels of government, from local school boards to the governor’s office.
A few hours later, after hearing Democrats strenuously object, the committee voted 12-4 on party lines to add these changes to the budget.
My shocked reaction to these changes, offered in my role as president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, were echoed by others across the state.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, chief author of Wisconsin’s open records law, called the changes a “devastating assault on open government in Wisconsin.” Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said he was “shocked and appalled to see the attack on open and transparent government,” and vowed not to back any budget that included it. Wisconsin’s Republican Attorney General, Brad Schimel, said the proposals would “move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.”
Newspapers and broadcast media mobilized in opposition. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a front-page editorial on July 4 declaring, “Any representative who votes to approve a budget containing such broad limits on the public's right to know is not fit to hold office.”
Advocacy groups condemned the move, with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the MacIver Institute issuing a joint statement. “Transparency in government is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a good government issue,” observed MacIver President Brett Healy. “Taxpayers deserve access to government records, so they can keep politicians all across this great state honest and accountable.”
And by mid-afternoon on Saturday, July 4, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders announced that these changes would be pulled from the budget. It was a great victory for the people of Wisconsin.
But the fight is not over. The budget still contains a measure approved by the Joint Finance Committee a few weeks back to let the University of Wisconsin System avoid naming finalists for key positions. And top legislative leaders including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, have defended the changes Walker reversed, and vowed to continue to push for some of them.
That’s unfortunate, because the recent actions of state lawmakers show a need for more transparency, not less. We should make it impossible for legislation to be introduced anonymously, as the attack on open records was. We should end the exemption that lets partisan legislative caucuses meet in secret, and make lawmakers follow the same records retention rules as all other state and local government officials.
It’s a sad thing that Wisconsin citizens must defend the state’s tradition of open government against those who would dismantle it, but a great relief to know that, in this case, we were up to the task.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.