Wisconsin Republicans may have swiftly backtracked on a proposal that would have gutted the state’s open records law, but the big question remains as to who inserted the language into the budget bill in the first place and whether Gov. Scott Walker (R) — who was already facing a lawsuit challenging him to release certain legislative documents — was involved in pushing the changes.
The changes to the public records law were initially approved by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee by a party-line vote Thursday evening, before the long Independence Day weekend. But a fierce backlash prompted Republican leaders, led by Walker, to announce during the holiday weekend they were dropping the provisions. The proposal, part of a budget package known as Motion #999, would have removed a number of legislative documents from under the scope of government transparency laws, and would have permitted lawmakers to opt out of submitting to other types of public records requests. The proposal appeared to target communications tracking how legislation is developed, which often reveals the influence of special interests.
So far, Republicans have stayed mum on who initially pushed for the changes, though it has emerged in the last 72 hours that most of leadership chain was at the very least aware of them before they were put in front of the Joint Finance Committee on Thursday. As for Walker’s role, the specifics of his involvement, if any, remain unknown. But the consensus in Madison is nothing would have gotten that far in the legislative process without at least Walker’s tacit approval.
Republican sources told The Journal Sentinel that Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin Vos (R) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) played an influential role in pulling the package together. Vos confirmed that he was aware of the proposals before Thursday’s vote, telling Wisconsin Public Radio Monday, “Almost all of us in the leadership teams were.”
He claimed that lawmakers were interested in the changes as a way to protect constituents from being targeted by outside groups through open records law, as well as to encourage a “collaborative discussion” during the legislative process.
When the committee’s Republican co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling were asked by reporters who brought forward the language, they said “multiple” legislators requested the change, but refused to name specifically whom.
As criticisms began to mount Friday, Walker’s office at first said the governor was considering alterations to the proposed exemptions to public records rules, but did not say directly whether he had a hand in creating them. Walker is expected to announce a White House run next week.
Likewise, Assembly Speaker Vos dodged questions about the governor’s involvement in the Wisconsin Public Radio interview.
However, a Democrat on the Joint Finance Committee, Rep. Gordon Hintz, has suggested the governor’s office was at least approving of the changes, if not directly behind them. His spokeswoman sent TPM this statement from him:
During our break after the 999 motions passed and before we came back to pass the final budget, I spoke with some of my Republican Finance colleagues about the open records motion and how it was blowing up on them. Given the immediate and strong backlash, they realized there could now be a potential veto. They made clear when we spoke that Governor Walker signed off on everything in the 999 motion. He crossed out everything he would veto. Several of the more controversial policy items that were likely to be in the motion such as Rent-to-Own were not. We were told that Governor Walker said he was ‘rock solid’ behind the open records change and the other 999 motions. The GOP JFC members would not have taken a vote like that without that guarantee period. The Governor and Republicans have spent the past month working out the details of the budget to secure the votes for passage and to make it so the Governor can sign it into law quickly. There are no surprises at this point. That is not how it works.
Republican sources told the Journal Sentinel that at least some GOP lawmakers had been given similar assurances that the governor’s office had approved of the changes, though they thought a veto could still be possible since they were not sure whether the approval came from Walker’s aides or the governor himself.
The proposed changes came as Walker is facing a lawsuit due to his refusal to turn over documents in an open records request. Jud Lounsbury, a writer for the liberal outlet The Progressive, filed the complaint in May alongside the left leaning watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy to gain access to documents pertaining to proposed changes to the state budget that would have removed references to the “Wisconsin Idea” from the University of Wisconsin’s missions statement, changes that Walker has since withdrawn and characterized as a drafting error.
“Governor Walker’s office acted outside Wisconsin’s open records law in denying our basic request to see communications that were behind removing the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ from our statutes,” Lounsbury told The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in an email. “So we took them to court. Instead of following the law, they’ve decided to change the law.”
A spokeswoman for the governor declined to respond to the Center’s questions regarding Walker’s involvement.
Walker is not the only lawmaker who has been targeted by an open records lawsuit. Nevertheless, state Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who lost a suit requiring that he turn over information in legislative records, asked the language to be stripped before the committee vote Thursday.
“I tend to err on the side that we should be more open than closed — despite my record on this issue,” Erpenbach said. “…This is really self-serving. Somebody’s being protected from something.”