When 14 Democratic state senators from Wisconsin fled to Illinois in February to avoid voting on Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial anti-collective bargaining bill, a constituent complained to Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen about the secret meetings the senators were having far from the Capitol, with no public notice.
Van Hollen’s office told the disgruntled taxpayer that the meetings were perfectly legal. That’s because when it passed the Open Meetings Act, the Legislature reserved for itself a unique exception: Members of the same party in the Senate and Assembly can meet secretly whenever and wherever they want -- even if there are enough members present to decide an issue.
Town, village, city, school district and county governments are prohibited from having such closed-door meetings, except in very limited circumstances, to discuss sensitive matters such as employee discipline or negotiating purchases of property. And even then the public must be notified of the general topics to be discussed.
In contrast, the Wisconsin Legislature routinely passes sweeping bills after little public discussion because the thorny details and disagreements have been hammered out beforehand in private partisan caucuses.
Rep. Cory Mason wants to change that. The Racine Democrat has re-introduced a bill, Assembly Bill 89, requiring lawmakers to follow the same rules as other public officials.
“For me, the hypocrisy of it is that, at the state level, we mandate openness for lower levels of government,” Mason says. “We ask everybody else to live up to these rules, then we exempt ourselves from them at the state level.”
Mason’s quest is a lonely one. Each time he introduces the bill, he picks up a few more co-sponsors. This time around he has five co-sponsors, including one Republican, Rep. Dean Kaufert of Neenah. The others are Democratic Reps. Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh and Kelda Helen Roys of Madison and Democratic Sens. Tim Cullen of Janesville and Chris Larson of Milwaukee. But that’s just six people in a body of 132 members.
It’s clear most lawmakers don’t want the public to crash their partisan strategy sessions, which Mason says are more about making sure members act in lockstep with their political parties and less about crafting the best legislation for the residents of Wisconsin.
“If you look at votes, very rarely does any member break from the party line on legislation,” he says. “The reason that happens in part is they’re persuaded and cajoled not to do that.”
In the end, the public is almost completely shut out of the real debate and instead hears mainly partisan talking points.
“We are no longer a deliberative body,” says Mason. “We break into our respective caucuses. We have all of our debate behind closed doors. We come out in public and make speeches. It’s very important for the public to see these debates.”
In his five years in Madison, Mason says he’s participated in only one true public deliberation, on the bill to legalize raw milk sales in Wisconsin, introduced at the end of last session. The measure was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle. A similar measure is circulating again this session.
“Neither side had a clearly defined opinion,” Mason recalls. “We went out on the floor and actually listened to one another. We actually debated about the public health concerns and creating a niche market for farmers.”
He calls the experience “refreshing” -- and rare.
“The fact that I can’t think of any one other bill in five years where that happened is a sad commentary.”
AB 89 has been assigned to the Assembly Committee on Judiciary and Ethics, chaired by Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon). Ott did not return messages asking whether he intends to grant the bill a hearing.
Tell Rep. Ott to open up the meeting rooms at the Capitol and let in some sunshine.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Hall, the council’s secretary, is a Wisconsin State Journal reporter.