Late change to state budget bill threatened open records law
By Matt Pommer
At issue is language of an amendment to the state budget bill poised for passage that would have rendered as “secret” virtually all records and communications made by public officials at both the state and local levels. The language was added to the budget bill in the final hours of committee deliberations on a partisan vote. All 12 Republican committee members voted for the provision.
Schimel also is a Republican, but he didn’t hesitate at all to denounce the ploy. “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy, the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” he said.
Two days after the vote, four Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker said the issue would be removed from the state budget to allow a legislative study of the matter. In the days immediately after the controversy broke, it remained unclear who was the author. In one way or another, GOP legislators said they didn’t know how the measure originated or who was responsible for it.
This is not the first time in Wisconsin legislative history that lawmakers disavow knowledge of the origin of controversial measures.
Walker’s participation in the statement of retreat spurred speculation his office had played a role in its development. Walker already is facing a legal challenge for access to his initial budget bill language to modify the historic role of the University of Wisconsin System.
The governor is seeking the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 2016. The dozen or so of additional GOP candidates may want to examine other budget bill language prepared by the Walker administration.
Democrats, of course, criticized the maneuver of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. But the move triggered sharp criticism from conservative groups that usually like Republican efforts in the State Capitol.
“Transparency in government is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a good government issue,” said Brett Healy, president of the conservative John MacIver institute. Tom Kamenick, a legal expert with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said the budget bill secrecy motion was “incredibly broad,’’ providing “near blanket” exemptions for elected officials.
Joining Walker in the retreat statement were Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau; and the co-chairs of the budget committee, Sen. Alberta Darling, R- River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.
They said they were committed to open and accountable government. The goals were to protect constituents’ privacy and encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staffs, they said.
Alas, the budget-bill secrecy plan had not been subjected to public hearings. The late-hour timing of the move puts its own cloud over the maneuver and the GOP legislative leaders.
There is the potential political fallout. Walker is centering his presidential hopes on a good showing in neighboring Iowa, the first state to select delegates to the Republican nominating convention. Iowans probably dislike secrecy in government as much as Wisconsinites.
The ill-fated secrecy move won’t have much impact in Republican legislative majorities in Wisconsin. Thanks to gerrymandering in 2011, less than 10 percent of legislative districts are competitive. The four legislators in the front row of the secrecy play won’t lose their seats.
Fitzgerald and Vos have been seen as potential future candidates for Wisconsin governor. Schimel’s quick denouncement of secrecy will put him on the “futures” list as well.
Known as the “dean” of the State Capitol correspondents, Pommer covered government in Madison for 36 years. He writes this column for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.