Lawmaker mulls bill to eliminate 'invitation to corruption' for Wisconsin state legislature
WISCONSIN - More than 40 years ago, Wisconsin state lawmakers exempted themselves from the public records rules they wrote for other government agencies; now, a state senator is considering re-introducing legislation that would take away what he calls an "invitation to corruption."
"It's fundamental to our state to have transparent and open government so people know what their elected officials are up to, who they're working on behalf of, or in some cases who they're not working on behalf of," Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said.
Wisconsin's Open Records Law gives the public access to records that, in part, show where tax dollars go and who influences elected leaders. Most government agencies, including the Governor's Office, have rules preventing them from destroying those records for specific periods of time.
However, those rules do not apply to the state legislature. A legal exception allows state lawmakers to delete "records and correspondence of any member of the legislature." This includes emails, calendars, and other records that would reveal information about how they use your tax dollars, who is influencing their votes, and why they make certain decisions.
FOX6 Investigators tested this loophole by sending open records requests to 54 state lawmakers. Click here to see the results of the investigation, and to learn more about the state legislature's deletion of public records.
"It's wild," Larson said. "From a transparency point of view, it seems bizarre that you can just delete anything that you want, as much as you want, without having to hold onto anything except for very specific scenarios."
"There are some who take advantage of that and get rid of whatever records they can so they're not actually having to report to the public," Larson added.
Larson introduced a bill in 2011 with now-former Senators Jim Holperin and Tim Cullen designed to take away state lawmakers' special exception, forcing them to keep records and turn them over to a neutral party for storage.
"It died," Larson said. "We never got so much as a hearing to be able to explain why this was an important decision."
Now, Larson says he is considering re-introducing the legislation and is looking for signs it can gain traction nearly eight years after his first attempt.
"If the public demands this and the public is pushing for it, I think that they would like this," Larson said. "I think the more that the door is kicked open, the more sunshine comes in, the more those bad things don't happen and the more public officials act in the public interest."