As Walker, GOP leaders reverse course on open records changes, Democrats speak out

MADISON -- Governor Scott Walker and top Republican lawmakers have reversed course on controversial changes to the state's open records laws.

Walker says he and GOP legislative leaders have agreed to completely remove a part of the proposed state budget that would severely roll back the state’s open records laws.

Walker announced the decision in a joint statement Saturday, July 4th with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee.

The statement says the records proposal “will be removed from the budget in its entirety.” They say the plan “was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.”

The restrictions, which Republicans slipped into the proposed budget late Thursday, would exempt nearly everything created by government officials from Wisconsin’s open records law.

The statement says the Legislature will form a committee to study the issue and allow for public discussion.

Governor Scott Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairs, Senator Alberta Darling and Representative John Nygren, released the following statement on the provisions to the state’s open records law included in Motion 999:

“After substantive discussion over the last day, we have agreed that the provisions relating to any changes in the state’s open records law will be removed from the budget in its entirety. We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government. The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents’ privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.

In order to allow for further debate on this issue outside of budget process, the Legislature will form a Legislative Council committee to more appropriately study it and allow for public discussion and input.”

Democrats responded to the proposal on Monday, July 6th.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said Republicans were "drunk with power."

"It is outrageous, absolutely outrageous that they believe the people of this state should not have access to their government, to the actions of their government employees, including the legislators who work for them and be able to deny us access," Rep. Barca said.

Additionally, Democratic legislative leaders issued this statement:

"Days after Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) passed new and unprecedented restrictions on public access to government records – and the resulting outcry from citizens and groups of all political stripes forced Republicans to backtrack on their extreme position – many important questions about this proposal remain unanswered. The timing of the Republicans’ attack on open government is especially suspicious with Governor Walker set to formally announcing he is running for president one week from today.

"Following last week’s historic assault on clean, open and transparent government, the people of Wisconsin are still waiting for answers on what Republicans were trying to accomplish, what they are trying to hide and who was responsible for requesting these changes,” Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said. “I have served in the legislature for many years, and it is misleading and ludicrous to suggest that anything would get into a budget wrap-up motion without the knowledge and approval of the governor and legislative leaders. We are looking to members of the media and citizens to join us in holding Republicans responsible not only for this terrible budget but also for making swift and damaging changes to public policy under the cover of darkness – with no debate or public input.”

Today Democratic leaders also announced a bill with the goal of preventing future last-minute abuses of the budget process. This bill would require that all non-fiscal policy items identified by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) be referred to standing committees in each house of the legislature. Those would be required to hold a public hearing and an executive session on each item, thereby allowing for public input on each policy item inserted into the budget and allowing standing committees to voice their approval or disapproval.

“What Republicans did in the Joint Finance Committee last week was an affront to our democracy, and Democrats are ready with a solution,” Assistant Assembly Democratic Leader Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) said. “Our legislation will ensure that non-fiscal items inserted into the budget – particularly ideas as egregious as rolling back open records laws, eliminating weekends for some workers and making it easier for predatory payday lenders to take advantage of vulnerable citizens – receive the public input and scrutiny they deserve.”

In recent years, open records requests have helped shed light on everything from potential corruption at Governor Walker’s jobs agency to criminal activity that led to the convictions of six of the governor’s former aides, as well as the revelation that major mining company donors essentially re-wrote large sections of Wisconsin’s environmental laws."

Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic issued this statement:

"On Friday, legislation was adopted by the Joint Committee on Finance that would shut the public out of nearly every Milwaukee County government function and drop a cloak of secrecy over the sale of publicly-owned land and contracts worth millions of dollars in taxpayer resources.  These proposals look like a wish list from the Executive, and I ask the Senate and the Assembly to remove the provisions from the state budget, as they are doing with the open records exemptions.

These proposals further consolidate powers within the Office of the Executive, and an unchecked Executive is dangerous for the one million residents who live in Milwaukee County.  The public, the media, and legislators should ask what if former County Executive Tom Ament had been granted these consolidated powers.

These provisions target Milwaukee County’s diverse community in an attempt to silence their voices; our nearly one million residents should have the same access to representation fair representation as all Wisconsinites. These legislative proposals would bring Milwaukee County out of line with other Wisconsin Counties.

The provisions would make public dealings of Milwaukee County such as contracting, procurement, and the sale of county land a secret because the Executive could simply take unilateral action without public notice and without holding a single public hearing resulting a complete lack of transparency.

Surely, it would be easier for the Executive to spend the public’s money when there is no accountability.  However, we believe the public deserves to know what their local government is doing with their money and be able to hold elected officials accountable for their actions and Milwaukee County’s $1 billion budget.

Over the last couple of years, the Board has led efforts to strike an historic compromise between the War Memorial and the Milwaukee Art Museum.  If these provisions had been law at the time, this initiative that honored our veterans could not have moved forward.  Additionally, we are concerned that the adoption of these measures could jeopardize the future of O’Donnell Park and our compromise to establish a public-to-public partnership with the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The diverse constituency of Milwaukee County is not served well when every time the Executive doesn’t get his way back home he runs to Madison and asks the Republicans in the legislature to enhance his powers at the expense of their voice.  I ask legislators to maintain a measure of checks and balances in Milwaukee County government, and invite the Executive to join me in this call for public transparency."