After blistering criticism, Wisconsin’s GOP lawmakers backtrack on effort to gut open records law

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Reacting to an avalanche of outrage from conservatives and progressives alike, Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP legislative leaders have had a sudden change of heart and agreed to remove from the proposed state budget a measure that would have all but eliminated the state’s open records laws.

The law would have made secret from the public everything created by state and local government officials, including drafts of legislation and communications with staff.

“Gov. Walker and his office are trying to muzzle all the watchdogs in this state,” said Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, in response to the proposal, which was tucked into the budget by Republican leaders without prior notice, much less debate. Republicans have refused to identify who’s behind the effort.

Even Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel blasted his colleagues over the attack on open records. Schimel said “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 has gone in the opposite direction, helping to shore up government transparency by launching the Office of Open Government in June, which is designed to makde government records more easily accessible to the public.

All states have some form of open records laws, although they vary in strength and enforcement mechanisms.

Wisconsin’s open records law has become a thorn in the side of Walker, who’s announcing a bid for the Republican presidential nomination on July 13. Some of his critics have speculated that he wants to shield his record from the eyes of reporters and opposition researchers as his presidential campaign gets underway.

For instance, among the issues that have dogged Walker recently is the failure of a job creation agency he created and chaired. Using the state’s open records law, the Wisconsin State Journal discovered that the agency — the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation — made a loan to one of Walker’s top donors.

That report led other media organizations, including The Associated Press, to look into the matter, and the agency also came under scrutiny from the Legislature.

Republicans’ attempt to cripple the open records law comes fast on the heels of their attempt last month to get rid of the Legislative Audit Bureau, a bipartisan agency that has provided citizens and lawmakers alike with honest, reliable investigations of waste, fraud, abuse, inefficiencies and cronyism in state government since 1966.

After bipartisan outrage, Republicans also dropped that proposal from the budget.

Walker told reporters before an Independence Day parade in of Wauwatosa yesterday morning that he planned to discuss the open records issue with legislative leaders after the weekend, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

“My hope is, that after talking with them on Monday, we get to the point where it’s either out completely or there’s significant changes to it,” he said.

But they didn’t wait until Monday. Later that same day, Walker suddenly shifted course and announced the decision to drop the open records proposal in a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the co-chairs of the joint budget committee.

“After substantive discussion over the last day, we have agreed that the provisions relating to any changes in the state’s open records law will be removed from the budget in its entirety,” the statement said. “… 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.”

Walker didn’t specifically say in Wauwatosa whether he and his office were involved in crafting the proposed changes, whether he objected to them in advance, or specifically say who proposed the overhaul. The joint statement didn’t address those points either.