In an ill-conceived amendment right before an extended Fourth of July holiday weekend, Wisconsin’s Joint Financial Committee approved the inclusion of anti-transparency language in the state budget bill. The provision would have created an exemption from the state’s open records law for the release of “deliberative materials,” loosely defined to include drafts, correspondence, background information, and many other steps in the process of political decision-making. As a result, legislators could communicate about policy with people behind a veil, concealing the influencers who are behind proposed legislation.
But opponents of the idea, who turned out to be numerous and from across the political spectrum, mobilized quickly to voice their displeasure.
State Attorney General, Brad Schimel, was among the first to raise the alarm about the provision with an email on Thursday night. “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the Budget Bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” Schimel, a Republican, said.
“It violates the tradition of the state of Wisconsin, and it shows what miserable cowards that these people are that they would stick this in an omnibus motion,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
MacIver Institute’s president, Brett Healy, said, “transparency in government is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a good government issue.”
In response to the massive backlash, lawmakers moved quickly to remove the provision and many distanced themselves from it. Republican Representative Dale Kooyenga, vice chairman of the Joint Financial Committee, apologized to his constituents for “not recognizing the scope of these changes.”
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has been reported as being involved with the drafting of the proposal, maintained in a press release that the intention of the language was misunderstood.
“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,” Walker said on announcing the removal of all changes to the state’s open records law. “It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.”
Currently, the author(s) of the proposal to scale back the open records law is unknown. Everyone on the finance committee appears to be shrugging their shoulders, unwilling to point to the source of the language that would have cloaked the state government in secrecy.
The open government rollback slipped into the state budget with myriad other changes, and since its removal, people have begun to push for a restriction on folding in non-budgetary actions into it.
The fight to protect the open government law emphasizes its vulnerability. In Florida, the public’s right to know is embedded into the state’s constitution, making it more difficult to change or restrict access. There has been at least one call now for a similar amendment to Wisconsin’s constitution to protect transparency. Having such open government language in the state constitution forces greater deliberation and acknowledgement of what state officials are doing.
Wisconsin’s open government policies are safe for now. But the issue may not be over. Walker announced in the press release the creation of a Legislative Council committee “to more appropriately study [the state’s open records law] and allow for public discussion and input.”
The hard work by state organizations, reporters, and individuals to defend transparency and very quickly convince lawmakers to step away from the amendment is surely a cause for celebration. At the same time, this challenge to open government remains disturbing and incredibly chilling.