Gov. Scott Walker’s office said Wednesday the Legislature’s budget committee should drop two new exemptions to the state’s open records law for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
The troubled job-creation agency is scheduled to be discussed Thursday by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau prepared a memo for the committee suggesting the records exemptions could be wide-ranging.
But Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick told the State Journal on Wednesday that the exemptions were part of the governor’s proposed merger of WEDC and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and were intended to be scrapped along with the merger proposal.
“We are no longer calling for these provisions since Governor Walker called for the removal of the proposed merger in the budget,” Patrick said.
Walker asked lawmakers May 8 to abandon the merger idea, which he proposed in his 2015-17 spending plan. The request came hours after another blistering review by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found WEDC had failed to track whether companies were creating promised jobs.
Walker’s announcement included no specific mention of the records exemption provision being removed.
Legislative Fiscal Bureau director Bob Lang said Wednesday that his office has not received any direct communication from Walker or lawmakers about removing the records exemptions or the merger. Bureau staff prepared an analysis of the records exemption because his office thought there might still be discussion about that provision. No memo was prepared on the merger because Walker’s announcement made it clear that it would be scrapped, Lang said.
Proposed exemptionsheightened concern
The proposed records exemptions raised additional concerns in the wake of a State Journal investigation of a $500,000 taxpayer loan to a struggling construction company.
The exemptions would cover company financial information shared with WEDC, as well as records stored in the agency’s records management system, which a nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau analyst warned “could be interpreted in an overly broad manner.”
Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, said the proposal “would be a step backwards in terms of transparency.”
“We need more transparency in government, not less,” Healy said.
“This is a cost of doing business with the state. If you are interested in securing government assistance, there are some transparency responsibilities that come with that.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said his concern with the proposal was that “information about the troubled financial history of an individual applying for a state handout would be off limits.”
The State Journal reported Sunday that Walker’s top aides pushed for a $4.3 million loan to Building Committee Inc. WEDC ended up giving the company a $500,000 unsecured loan, which has not been repaid. The company and its owner, William Minahan, had exhibited signs of financial distress before and after the loan was approved.
“Of all the agencies you would want to give a sweeping ability to keep things secret, this would have to be the last on any sane person’s list,” Lueders said.
“If anything the governor should be bending over backwards to increase the amount of transparency at this troubled agency,” he said.
Loan program endedafter BCI information released
Last Friday Walker also called on lawmakers to scrap WEDC’s entire loan program and divert $55 million in new funding for a revolving loan fund to education and job training programs, also citing the audit. The announcement came within hours of Walker’s office and WEDC releasing records to the State Journal related to the company that had received the $500,000 loan.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined to comment on the proposal.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, budget committee co-chairs Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, did not respond to a request for comment.
Currently WEDC records are subject to the state open records law, with the exception of pending grants, loans and economic development projects that WEDC deems confidential for competitive reasons, the fiscal bureau said.
Walker’s original proposal exempted “records or portions of records consisting of personal or financial information provided by a person seeking a grant, loan, tax credit or other assistance from WEDC,” the fiscal bureau wrote in a Tuesday memo to the budget committee.
Walker also wanted to exempt records posted to the agency’s records management system, though the fiscal bureau analysis states “it is unclear … what types of information might become exempt from public inspection under this provision as compared to current law.”
“It could be argued that a blanket exemption for all information stored to a (network) maintained by WEDC could be interpreted in an overly broad manner,” the fiscal bureau wrote.
Patrick said the governor’s proposal would not have exempted names of award recipients nor the types of records that were released to the State Journal as part of its investigation into Building Committee Inc.