Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Republicans Regret Assault on Open Records Law

But Rep. John Nygren is still open to changes to the Open Records Law, just not now.

By - Sep 19th, 2016 10:09 am
John Nygren. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

John Nygren. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) who voted for a last-minute budget amendment that did many things – including gutting the Open Records Law obligations of legislators, the governor and other top state officials – now say they made a big mistake.

“It was my first session on Joint Finance,” Republican Rep. Mary Czaja said in a WisconsinEye interview. “I learned a lot….It won’t happen again.”

“I called Senate Majority Leader [Scott] Fitzgerald at 9 o’clock the next morning and said, ‘We’ve got to fix this’,” Sen. Tom Tiffany said in a separate interview. He said he then wrote an open letter to media organizations in his 12th Senate District across northeast Wisconsin admitting, “I made a mistake.”

Czaja and Tiffany were serving on the Legislature’s budget committee for the first time when they took the advice of party leaders and, without debate, voted for the committee’s final amendment to the 2017-19 budget before the July 4 holiday weekend last year.

Gov. Scott Walker, Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos quickly reversed themselves and killed the proposed changes to the Open Records Law. But the changes, and the secrecy surrounding them, touched off a statewide firestorm of criticism from conservatives, liberals and outraged individuals.

All 12 Republicans on the 16-member Finance Committee voted for the omnibus budget amendment that included weakening the Open Records Law. The four JFC Democrats voted against it.

Nine of those 12 Republicans – including Sens. Luther Olsen and Sheila Harsdorf – are up for re-election Nov. 8.

So far, their votes on the amendment – which would have kept secret records of contacts and other decisions made by legislators, Gov. Scott Walker and the state Department of Administration – have not become major campaign issues.

Olsen and Harsdorf can’t use the “rookie mistake” excuse.

Those two have served a total of 17 years on the 16-member committee that conducts a line-by-line review of the governor’s budget and then recommends changes to the full Legislature.

In separate interviews, the explanations that Olsen and Harsdorf offered for backing the move to shred sections of the Open Records Law showed how the Capitol game of leverage and deal making works.

Olsen said another provision of that omnibus final amendment reversed an earlier JFC decision and made sure Wisconsin would not have “the lowest requirements to be a teacher in the country” – something he, as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, desperately wanted fixed.

And, Olsen said, he also felt the Open Records changes would never become law because Walker, who weeks later became a candidate for President, would veto them “if it ever” got to his desk.

Walker’s presidential campaign advisers would convince him it would be “political suicide” to sign such broad Open Records exemptions into law, Olsen explained.

“It was a bad vote. I knew it at the time,” Olsen added. “But honestly, deep in my heart, I thought that this will never become law, because I knew what was coming down the pike.”

Harsdorf said she privately argued with party leaders “not to include” weakening the Open Records Law in JFC’s final budget amendment.

But, she said, that same amendment also funded a business incubator in her 10th Senate District. So, “Obviously I was not a position to vote against that particular motion.”

Once the Open Records Law changes passed the Finance Committee, however, Harsdorf said she quickly sponsored the formal amendment that killed them once and for all.

More than a year after the JFC vote, even Committee Cochairman Rep. John Nygren said it was a mistake to ask the panel to rewrite Open Records Law requirements “without any type of conversation.”

Nygren, who faces a Democratic challenger Nov. 8, was one of the Republican leaders who urged the committee’s 11 other Republicans to approve the final package.

Nygren said it would have prompted “less skepticism” if Open Records Law changes would have been considered separately, instead of being jammed into the committee’s omnibus final motion.

Still, Nygren said amending the Open Records Law to protect someone who contacts him or his office with “very private” problems should be considered.

But, next session, Nygren added: “We probably need to lay low and not address that issue.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

13 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Republicans Regret Assault on Open Records Law”

  1. M says:

    This article does not mention who actually got this introduced and why. It would clearly have kept the media and public from knowing about all sorts of shenanigans, including actions that were the subject of an ongoing John Doe investigation.

    GOP legislators may have thought Walker would veto the bill because he was running for president, but that seems like pretty lame passing the buck. It seems very well could have approved this or anything else (like gutting the Wisconsin Idea) if there was not major pushback to curb his penchant for over-reach.

  2. John Parfrey says:

    Just not now, huh. I wonder why.

  3. Jason says:

    How else will I be able to find out about all these treasured youth caring all these illegal guns? Then later to find that the district attorneys in Milwaukee do not enforce the actual gun laws. Which leads Barrett and his upstanding Chief of Police to all ways rail about stronger gun laws.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    Yes if only they could be more like the tough cowboy sheriff with his six-figure speaking fees and 12 days a year spent in the county. It must suck when he has to be here that one day a month as opposed to giving tough guy speeches all over the country to kooks, conspiratorial lunatics, and nutjars.

  5. Jason says:

    You know Vince you and I are very lucky not to live in certain parts of the city of Milwaukee. Where there are not even enough cops to secure crime scenes for the first responders. Instead, the firefighters get there first and MPD comes second,and the victim just bleeds to death.

  6. Vincent Hanna says:

    Like you give two sh*ts about those victims Jason. Sell crazy somewhere else. They only matter to you as a vessel to bash Milwaukee, Barrett, and Flynn.

  7. A Bus Driver says:

    Jason the Troll. I would love to drop you off in one of those parts of the city you are referring to with racist bigot spayed on you. With no way to leave the area.

  8. Jason says:

    Bus driver how does it work? Is that plastic shield that welcomes you as you hop on the bus is that optional for your protection, or does it just get secured in questionable areas of Milwaukee. Who is the racist?

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    He’s just saying that since your heart bleeds for those people it would benefit all involved if you spent some time in their community sharing your love them.

  10. Alene says:

    Olsen said, he also felt the Open Records changes would never become law because Walker would veto them “if it ever” got to his desk, but he just had to try anyway, didn’t he? Just in case Walker let it go through.

    Harsdorf said she privately argued with party leaders “not to include” weakening the Open Records Law … but says she was not in a position to vote against the motion because it included funding to her district? Really? You put money ahead of transparency. You were in a position to stop it right there and you chose not to. You should be voted out of office. Voting for it and then sponsoring the amendment that killed it is not sufficient atonement for your yes vote.

    The problem with all of you is that you think you can jam it into a budget bill and no one will notice. That’s the wrong way to make those types of changes in Wisconsin.

  11. A Bus Driver says:

    @ Jason; The racist here is you.

  12. Jason Novak says:

    That is the best you have to offer. Bus Driver states R-A-C-I-S-T and drops the Mike. Bus Driver wins another argument. Your partner must like that when you disappoint in the arena of love. Well….well, your a racist.

  13. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    The garbage in the Open Records changes was completely unrelated to the budget, and had nothing to do with any of these bills that Harsdorf or Olsen or the others wanted passed. I don’t buy for a second that these people didn’t want to vote for it, but even if what they say is true, it shows they chose “party over principle”, and they must be removed for allowing the evil to happen on their watch.

    Their only regret is that they got caught trying to sneak it through in the middle of the night without debate. It is well past time members of both parties demand that ALL amendments and final bills be published for 24 hours before they can be passed. Non-lobbyists and non-oligarchs have no confidence in the State Legislature these days, and rightfully so.

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