Bill Lueders
Your Right to Know

Legislators’ Shocking Attack on Open Government

Budget provision with no author will decimate open records rules for legislature. It will pass unless there is an outcry from legislators.

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Alberta Darling

Alberta Darling

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.

9 thoughts on “Your Right to Know: Legislators’ Shocking Attack on Open Government”

  1. Virginia Small says:

    Doing this on the eve of our national holiday to celebrate our country’s courageous creation of a democracy is absolutely galling.

    This is way beyond the pale. Wisconsin already has the “best Supreme Court money can buy.” These rulings will allow the governor and legislators to pursue corrupt and impenetrable collusion with impunity.

    Everyone who cares about democracy, please contact your representatives and legislative leaders about this “full-frontal assault.”

  2. John says:

    The Usual Suspects who regularly comment in opposition to articles will likely avoid the same regarding this article as they do all others which can’t be refuted.

    This is beyond disgusting.

  3. Laurene Bach says:

    When are we going to wake up from this nightmare!

  4. Bob De Vita says:

    Based on 3 July JS, appears to be major walk back from legislators who don’t want to own this now that backlash has erupted across the political spectrum .

  5. Tom D says:

    Does this mean that LRB documents that are now online will simply disappear in a few days?

    If so, there should be some effort to download as much as possible before that happens.

  6. David says:

    This is all very predictable for a governor and legislators that are extremists and aim to cover up their corrupt tracks. There should be no surprise from this group getting all the laws from ALEC. It is a version of 21st Century fascism with laws written by corporate attorneys.

  7. allen says:

    The ruling legislature seems intent on commiting suicide. I hope Alberta goes first.

  8. Barb - West Bend says:

    These Republican Legislators and Gov. Walker want the citizens of Wisconsin to be kept in the dark. They do their dastardly deeds under cover of night, with no prior warning of their intentions…and will not answer when questioned on their motives. They just walk away. It does no good to write to them as they only care about their Party and not the people. And they use Christian symbolism and language to fool their supporters. They are a disgrace to Wisconsin and a blight on Christianity.

  9. Ralph says:

    What do they have to hide? If there is nothing to hide, why would someone introduce this amendment. There has to be something…

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