Walker Admits Role in Curbing Open Records
Fitzgerald says governor involved and Walker’s office admits his role. Legislative drafting notes hid the authors.
The cat is out of the bag. Gov. Scott Walker admitted, through his ever-busy spokesperson Laurel Patrick, that he was involved in trying to scrap the state’s open records laws. “Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation,” said Patrick, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported today.
It was the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that first raised questions about Walker’s role in this proposal, which was a last minute addition to the state budget bill. The Center did a story on Friday, published in Urban Milwaukee, which noted that that language of the proposal was nearly identical to that used by Walker’s office to deny requests for public information from his office in recent months. The Center’s reporter Dee Hall asked Walker to discuss his role in drafting the item in the budget bill and he declined to do so.
The Journal Sentinel declined to cover this, and for days after that, Walker dodged reporters asking about his role in crafting the legislation. But yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald admitted to the Capital Times that he and other top Republican leaders, along with Walker’s staff, were involved in writing the open records changes. “We tried to put something together we thought that made sense,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’s not going to be accepted publicly and that’s why we’re here pulling it back today.”
Fitzgerald’s comment seemed to leave Walker with no option but to admit involvement, but Patrick said it was top GOP lawmakers who initiated the changes. “Legislative leaders let us know that they were interested in making changes to the open records law. In response, our staff provided input regarding these proposed changes,” Patrick said in an email to the Wisconsin Center.
That input presumably included language that Walker has been using for months to refuse open records requests.
Legislators went to some lengths to hide their fingerprints, as a story today by the Wisconsin Center found. A review by three of its reporters of the 60 pages of drafting notes associated with the sweeping changes to the state’s open-records law “offered no clues about who initiated the proposals. The initials and partial names that traditionally appear on the records” did not match that of any legislators and were only those of Legislative Reference Bureau or Legislative Fiscal Bureau staff members who help lawmakers draft bills, the Center found.
“Legislative Reference Bureau records indicate the changes were drafted in the week before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee introduced and passed them Thursday on a party-line 12-4 vote without public debate,” the Center reported.
Republican lawmakers are leaving in place a separate proposal, adopted earlier, which Urban Milwaukee reported, that would exempt the UW System from having to disclose the names of job finalists for top positions. Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said this should also have been removed from the budget bill. “They should be dropping this altogether,” Lueders told the Journal Sentinel. “I don’t know anyone who has demonstrated that we have a problem with too much openness in Wisconsin.”