Gov. Scott Walker plans to work with lawmakers to alter a Republican budget provision that severely limits access to public records, his spokeswoman said. But the governor’s office provided no specifics Friday, as opposition to the radical remake of the state’s open records law exploded across the political spectrum — including from the state’s Republican attorney general.
At least one GOP senator said he wouldn’t vote for the 2015-17 budget if it includes the changes. With two other senators publicly vowing not to support the budget for other reasons, passage in the 19-14 Republican-controlled Senate appeared in jeopardy.
Walker’s announcement came hours after Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel denounced the changes Republican lawmakers approved Thursday night.
“Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy, and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” Schimel said in a statement.
Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said Friday he wouldn’t vote for the budget if it includes the changes.
“I was shocked and appalled to see the attack on open and transparent government last night by the Joint Committee on Finance,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Other Republican lawmakers joined Cowles on Friday in opposing the measure passed by all 12 Republicans on the budget committee. The changes would be retroactive to Wednesday, a day before they were introduced.
Rep. John Macco, R-Green Bay, said Friday afternoon on Twitter that he is “working with my fellow representatives to take changes to our Open Records Request laws out of the budget.” And Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, said on Twitter he hadn’t seen the proposals until they were unveiled Thursday night and said he hoped changes can be made before a vote is taken on the budget.
Walker pledged to work with legislative leaders to change the provision before it goes to the full Assembly and Senate for a vote. But spokeswoman Laurel Patrick did not respond to questions seeking to clarify what kind of changes would be made.
The changes — included in a package of budget amendments introduced by budget committee co-chairmen Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills — would render secret virtually all records and communications made by lawmakers and policymakers at the state and local levels. All drafting files for legislation also would no longer be public.
Nygren, Darling and several Republican members of the committee, all of whom voted for the omnibus amendment, claimed not to know where the proposals came from. Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said Thursday that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, supported the changes. Neither leader’s offices returned messages Friday.
Lawsuit against Walker
The budget amendments came the same day Walker filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president and follow on the heels of a lawsuit against Walker by the liberal Center for Media and Democracy over Walker’s refusal to release records pertaining to his office’s move to change the University of Wisconsin System’s mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea.
CMD lawyer Brendan Fischer said the governor’s office refused the records on the basis that they were part of the “deliberative process,” an exemption he says doesn’t currently exist in state law. However, under the changes approved Thursday, a broad new scope of communication and records known as “deliberative materials” is created, and those would be excluded from public view.
The measure defines deliberative materials as “communications and other materials, including opinions, analyses, briefings, background information, recommendations, suggestions, drafts, correspondence about drafts, and notes, created or prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action” or in preparing a draft of a document.
“There’s certainly a correlation there,” said Fischer, who also noted that, as Walker runs for president, he can expect a number of records requests from other presidential candidates’ campaigns doing opposition research.
Patrick did not respond to questions about whether Walker or his staff was involved in drafting the changes.
In a June column, attorney and Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council vice president Christa Westerberg said that while the federal government and other states have created exceptions in their public records law to materials considered to be part of the decision-making process, “Wisconsin has not, and for good reason.”
“The public has the right to see what information the government used to reach a decision, and what alternatives were considered,” she said.
The revised records law would also give a legislator a “legal privilege” or right to refuse to disclose — and to prevent a current or former staff member from disclosing — virtually any communication that occurred during the lawmaker’s term in office. No other state gives lawmakers such broad powers.
Records that could be kept secret would be of “all aspects of legislative proceedings,” “all matters related to the policies, practices and procedures of the legislative branch,” “researching, drafting, circulating, discussing, introducing and amending legislative proposals,” “all matters related to the work of a legislative committee,” “investigations and oversight,” “constituent relations,” and “all other powers, duties, and functions assigned by law,” according to the motion.
The only records available to the public would be those related to criminal activity or political campaigning.
In another proposal, the Legislative Reference Bureau would be required to keep all drafting files for legislation confidential. The LRB would no longer be required to maintain and house the drafting records of legislation introduced in prior legislative sessions and use such records to provide information about legislative intent when questions arise about a particular law. Currently, the public can examine drafting files for bills after they have been introduced.
The motion also eliminates the requirement that the LRB maintain all drafting files for legislation during the current legislative session and release those files for public view once the Legislature adjourns.
Pressure from open government advocates from conservative and liberal circles swelled Friday, with many saying shutting the door to public scrutiny would breed corruption and hinder the public’s knowledge of how their government works.
Critics included the conservative MacIver Institute and Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and liberal groups CMD and One Wisconsin Now.
The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists on Friday urged lawmakers to remove the language from the budget.
“For decades, Wisconsin has had a proud tradition of open government, and the language inserted Thursday by the Joint Finance Committee … would nearly eliminate any opportunity for the public to discover how its taxpayer-funded elected officials work,” chapter president Mark Pitsch and regional director Joe Radske wrote in a letter to Fitzgerald and Vos. Pitsch is the State Journal’s state editor; Radske is executive producer for WISC-TV (Ch. 3).
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also urged its members to oppose the changes.
“Should they become law, these changes would free the Legislature of the obligations of transparency in place for all other state and local governmental agencies,” said president Bill Lueders. “They will spare lawmakers from the burden of accountability to the people who elect them and pay their salaries. They will shield from public view the collusions of lawmakers with special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign donors.”
Democratic members of the Legislature opposed to the changes have scheduled a Monday press conference.