On July 2, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unleashed a shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government.
It happened at night, on the eve of a holiday weekend, just a few hours after the proposal was first unveiled. No one has taken credit for it. Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, literally walked away from a reporter asking whose idea it was.
The committee’s cowardly action, which passed on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority, was part of an omnibus motion stuck into the state budget. It will effectively end the Legislature’s need to comply with the state’s Open Records Law.
The changes exempt legislative communications from the law; shield from release all “deliberative materials” created for the purpose of making law or public policy (including opinions, analyses and briefings prepared at public expense); shut down public access to all records created in the process of drafting legislation; and specify that the Legislature can freely exempt any record from disclosure simply by passing a rule or policy.
These radical and sweeping changes represent a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin’s history of open government. They are clearly intended to block the public from discovering what factors drive the official actions of government, especially the Legislature, and will inevitably lead to abuse, malfeasance and corruption.
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. 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.
In one 2014 case, bill drafting records exposed the involvement of a wealthy campaign donor in drafting a bill that would have reduced his own child-support obligation. The changes inserted into the budget bill would keep these records secret.
Bill drafting records have long been understood to be public records, and are now routinely posted online. The change inserted into the budget would make release of these records illegal.
In addition, the omnibus bill cuts away at public access to information about criminal charges in the state’s online court records system. It would allow charges filed against some individuals to “disappear” from this archive. While not as sweeping as some past failed efforts to remove records from this system, it is being done with virtually no public discussion.
The records these changes would seal off have, on countless past occasions, been used to expose wrongdoing and provide essential information on the workings of government. We should be pointing this out, as well as reminding people of the very strong proclamations in favor of transparency that have been made by our elected officials, including Gov. Scott Walker, who as a candidate said that the state Legislature needs to be more transparent.
And all of these changes are strictly policy matters, which have absolutely no business being part of a budget bill.
The people of Wisconsin need to rise in opposition to this attack on our state’s tradition of open and honest government. The future integrity of our state depends on it.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.