It appears Wisconsin's tradition of open records and transparent government may be safe — for the weekend, at least.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, along with the co-chairs of the Legislature's Joint Finance committee, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, all Republicans, responded to substantial pushback over a measure that would severely limit access to legislative records with a Saturday afternoon statement, saying "the provisions relating to any changes in the state's open records law will be removed from the budget in its entirety."
The Joint Finance Committee, controlled like both houses of the Legislature by Republicans, passed the measure on a party line vote late Thursday as part of "Motion #999," which often includes last-minute wishlist items, non-fiscal policy and nods to special interests.
"We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government," read the statement. "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."
Republicans have avoided identifying who is behind the proposal, but Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, a member of the JFC, tweeted Friday that his Republican colleagues on the panel assured him that Walker had gone over the motion, signing off on "motions including open records changes after crossing out what he'd veto."
The statement also says a Legislative Council committee will be formed to examine the issue of records access more closely and outside the budget deliberation process.
Speaking with reporters Saturday morning, Walker made no mention of any plans to address the issue this weekend, insisting that he planned to wait until a Monday meeting with legislative leaders to iron out an issue that was met by sharp criticism from all sides over the past two days. He also avoided answering questions about his role in crafting and proposing the measure.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted a brief video of Walker's meeting with reporters.
The governor, who will announce he's running for president in Waukesha on July 13, was first asked if his office had any input on the proposal.
"As I mentioned yesterday, we’re going to sit down and talk to the legislative leaders about that. We had already planned a follow-up meeting the other day in terms of the arena where we had all four legislative leaders," Walker said. "I think it’s pretty clear they need to make some changes on that and we’re going to work with them on it Monday."
Walker was then asked if he planned to veto the measure from the final budget if it cleared the Assembly and Senate.
"Certainly it will all depend. We haven’t made commitments on any other vetoes, but those are things obviously a lot of concerns about. My hope is, after talking to them on Monday we get to a point where it’s either out completely or there are significant changes to it," Walker said. "Again, as you know at the end of the legislative processs, there’s a lot of things the legislative leadership works on and for us, there’s other things in there. We’ll review it and we’ll see what passes not just the Joint Finance Committee, but what gets through the Assembly and the Senate."
Finally, Walker was asked if he was aware of the proposal and if he objected to it.
"Again, those are all things we’ll talk about on Monday. We’ll talk about what we’re going to do going forward. There’s always all sorts of ideas that float around the Capitol before the end of the Joint Finance Committee process, but I think it’s pretty clear that lawmakers from both parties, as well as others, want us to make changes and we’re going to make sure that happens starting with a meeting on Monday," Walker said.
Walker went on to say it's "overall, a very positive budget" and called attention to property tax cuts.
The proposal to limit access to legislative records, effective as of July 1, the first day of the state's fiscal year, was immediately greeted with criticism Thursday afternoon with legislators from both parties condemning it within 24 hours of its passage.
The Capital Times and other media organizations have filed open records requests for documents related to the drafting of the measure, which could have been ignored had the proposal passed with the state budget and been signed into law by Walker.