The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is now at the mercy of Gov. Scott Walker as to whether it will stay housed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
As GOP leaders promised, the state Senate voted to maintain a budget provision that will kick the nonprofit group off the UW campus, where it currently occupies two offices as part of a rent-free "facilities use agreement" with the UW School of Journalism. An amendment offered by Democrats Thursday to remove the provision was voted down, 17-16. GOP Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center joined all Democrats in voting for the doomed amendment.
Walker could prevent WCIJ's eviction, which was tucked in the 2013-15 state budget by the Joint Finance Committee, by using his powerful partial veto, which allows him to eliminate words and sentences from the budget.
Will he do it? It's anybody's guess. WCIJ executive director Andy Hall offered no prediction. But he did say the outpouring of support from fans and fellow journalists has been inspiring, and that the organization will emerge stronger as a result.
"We have more friends in more places now than before," he said, pointing to the hundreds who signed an online petition in support of the center, including many who have been inspired to give money in the wake of the unexpected legislation, attributed to Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.
But despite the strong criticism Hall has levied at those supporting the legislation, he said he and his organization are limited in what they can do to fight back. As a 501(c)(3) organization, WCIJ is only allowed to do a certain amount of lobbying or it risks its nonprofit tax status.
But perhaps even more importantly, Hall and his colleagues are career journalists and — contrary to what some Republicans at the Capitol have implied — are unaccustomed to being political advocates. While WCIJ writers have occasionally editorialized in favor of open government and open records, they are likely unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the practices that most advocacy groups engage in to win political battles. Organizing protests or phone banks are not skills one learns in journalism school.
It's a unique situation, to say the least.
"So far, no one has been able to tell me when another U.S. news organization has ever been the specific, sole target of a law," said Hall. "Perhaps Wisconsin's political leaders are making history."
Beyond prohibiting WCIJ from being housed on university property, the legislation also bars UW employees from "doing any work related to the Center ... as part of their duties as UW employees." Currently, UW faculty and staff regularly collaborate on investigative projects with WCIJ.
So what happens if WCIJ has to leave campus? Hall said he has received "multiple generous offers" from other journalists across the state to house the center's staff. WCIJ's employees, who currently make do with two small rooms in Vilas Hall, would not likely have to search far and wide for acceptable accommodations.