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Friday, December 1, 2023

Backlash against Walker’s open meeting law changes

President Barack Obama is greeted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as he arrives on Air Force One at La Crosse Regional Airport, Thursday.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama is greeted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as he arrives on Air Force One at La Crosse Regional Airport, Thursday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Opposition mounted Friday to a surprise Republican budget measure that would exempt from Wisconsin open records laws nearly everything created by state and local government officials, including drafts of legislation and communications with staff.

The 24-page measure passed late Thursday night in the state’s budget committee on a 12-4 vote with only Republicans voting for it. Democrats on the committee decried the sudden insertion of changes that hadn’t been publicly discussed. The full Legislature, and GOP Gov. Scott Walker, still must sign off before they become law.

A day later, a backlash began with civil liberties advocates and lawmakers from both parties expressing opposition to the provisions.

“Gov. Walker and his office are trying to muzzle all the watchdogs in this state,” said Brendan Fischer, General Counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy said.

Walker’s spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in a statement Friday that the governor would meet with legislative leaders to make changes to the provisions before they reach the full Legislature. She didn’t immediately specify what the changes would be.

The open records flap emerged just 10 days before Walker is expected to formally announce on July 13 his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Walker had hoped to wrap up dealings with the Wisconsin Legislature by now to turn his attention to the 2016 race but the session has dragged on without a budget approved for the new fiscal year.

Among the issues that have dogged Walker recently is the performance of a job creation agency he championed. The Wisconsin State Journal used the open records law that Republicans are now trying to tighten to report in May that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation made a loan to one of Walker’s top donors. The report led other media organizations, including The Associated Press, to look into the matter and the agency has faced scrutiny from the Legislature.

Under the open records proposal Republicans rushed through the committee, all “deliberative materials” would be exempt from the open records law. That includes all materials prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action or in drafting a document or communication.

The exemptions are even more extensive for members of the Legislature and their staff. They would not have to disclose communications between one another, the public or others who work for the Legislature, such as staff in the clerk’s and sergeant at arms offices. The protection extends to a wide array of legislative business, including drafting bills, developing public policy, all aspects of legislative proceedings such as committee hearings, and investigations and oversight.

Legislative service agencies would be required to keep all communications, records and information confidential.

The provisions would move the state in the wrong direction, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, said in a statement.

GOP state Sen. Robert Cowles also said in a statement Friday said the provisions were an attack on transparent government.

“Limiting public access to legislative communications and records is against all I have stood for while in office and I will not support a budget that includes this assault on democracy,” Cowles said.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council sent an emergency email alert Friday denouncing the provisions and calling for members to oppose them. And the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to leaders of chambers Friday asking them to remove the provisions that they say are “gutting” the state’s public records law.

One Wisconsin Now, a liberal advocacy organization, as well as the conservative think-tank, the MacIver Institute for Public Policy and the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty each issued statements Friday criticizing the measure.

Republicans who supported the measure would not say Friday who had called for the provisions or why they had voted for it. Emails and phone messages to Republicans on the state budget committee and to spokeswomen for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos were not immediately returned Friday.

Some Republican lawmakers have said they will continue to provide records, including drafting files, even if the provisions becomes law.


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