The fireworks were supposed to come out on July 4 to celebrate Independence Day.
Instead, they began to fly late last Thursday (July 2) evening after members of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 on party lines to adopt a measure which included a provision that would have greatly altered the state’s open records law.
Located within a 24-page motion introduced after 8 p.m. the day before government officials were to adjourn for the July 4th holiday weekend, the measure specifically called for staff communication and policy drafts, among other documents, to be exempted from the purview of Wisconsin’s stringent open records laws.
But it wasn’t just the state’s more than 130 legislators who would have been impacted by the measure, which also sought to extend its protections to all levels of government on down to DeForest Village Hall and local school board members.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told the Associated Press on July 2 that the proposal was a “full-frontal assault on the open records law” and that he hoped there would be a “tremendous uprising to it.”
As news of the open records proposal spread, so too did outrage from public officials of all walks to members of the press throughout Wisconsin, just as Lueders speculated.
Among them were Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who said the changes were poised to promote corruption among politicians and others. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, issued a statement that said he would not support a budget “that includes this assault on democracy” while Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, vowed that he would follow prior open records laws as they were.
Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, took to Twitter to say he hoped changes could be made before a vote is taken on the full budget plan.
Also to speak out over the weekend about the proposed changes was first term Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel,
“Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the Budget Bill limiting access to public records moves Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” Schimel said in a release.
Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett spoke in opposition in the wake of the controversy, saying that some legislators were attempting to create “a blank check to close the government to scrutiny from citizens and the press.”
The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now and the conservative think-tank the MacIver Institute for Public Policy each issued statements critical of the JFC’s decision.
The budget motion voted on by the JFC was sponsored by GOP committee co-chairs Rep. John Nygren of Marinette and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills. It’s not yet known, however, who authored or requested the open records provisions be included.
Among those to vote in favor of the motion was Sen. Luther Olson, R-Ripon, whose district includes a portion of the DeForest area. When asked by reporters last Thursday about the open records provisions, he reportedly said “Don’t ask me. I didn’t write it.”
The proposed open records law changes were panned locally by Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and DeForest Village Board President Judd Blau.
“What was something like that doing in a budget bill to begin with?” Parisi remarked this week. “And if you really want to strip away people's rights to transparency, have the decency to let people show up and testify and express how they feel about it.”
Blau said the “essence of good government” is when people are able to trust elected officials and operations are “open and transparent.”
“Sneaking this kind of legislation into the budget is just bad form,” said Blau. “If someone wants to know how a law came about in the village, they should be able to request all documents pertaining to the issue.”
Two days after the JFC’s July 2 vote, Gov. Scott Walker, who has yet to say whether his office was involved with the creation of the language, and a group of state GOP leaders, issued a statement saying they agreed to scrap the open records law changes from the budget.
Included in the joint statement released July 4 were Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester.
“After substantive discussion over the last day, we have agreed that the provisions relating to any changes in the state's open records law will be removed from the budget in its entirety,” the statement said. “…The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents' privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reported Tuesday (July 7) that Nygren and Vos were standing by the open records alterations and that the plan originally had input and support of legislative leaders within both houses.
Lueders told the DeForest Times-Tribune that the proper solution is a “full repeal” of the open records changes from the biennial budget and that it’s “probably impossible to overstate what a huge hole this would have blown into the records law.”
“I think these provisions were added because some lawmakers have contempt for the public's right to know how they conduct the public's business,” Lueders continued. “I believe it is a small minority, but that was all it took for this almost to become law.”