July 3, 2015
In a brazen attempt to shield themselves from Wisconsin’s open records laws, Republican legislators on the Joint Finance Committee snuck some sweeping provisions into their omnibus motion that would deny the people of Wisconsin from knowing just about anything about how the legislature functions—or who is wielding influence behind closed doors.
The Joint Finance Committee revealed this change on July 2. Republican lawmakers, who dominate the committee, refused to say who put this language in the motion, which passed two hours after this change was unveiled.
One of the provisions would exclude all legislative “deliberative materials” from the open records laws. These include: “communications and other materials, including opinions, analyses, briefings, background information, recommendations, suggestions, drafts, correspondence about drafts, and notes, created or prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action or in the process of drafting a document or formulating an official communication.”
To top that off, the motion says, “This provision is effective and initially applicable July 1, 2015,” so by making it retroactive, the Joint Finance Committee is shielding itself, and the author of this provision, from public scrutiny.
Another provision grants legislators the legal privilege to “refuse to disclose, and to prevent a current or former legislative staff member from disclosing,” just about everything that happened while doing legislative business.
It also requires “legislative service agences to at all times observe the confidential nature of all communications, records, and information that may be subject to these legislator privileges.”
The open records laws have revealed embarrassing scandals recently, including about Scott Walker’s effort to destroy the Wisconsin Idea and to delete the “search for truth” from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. And last year, open records requests revealed that a Republican legislator had introduced a bill sought by one of his biggest donors that would have reduced that donor’s child support payments.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called this a “cowardly action.” He added that it would “shield from public view the collusions of lawmakers with special interest groups, lobbyists, and campaign donors.”
“This is obscene,” said Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “Wisconsin has had a long and treasured reputation for open government, and the Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee are trying to ruin that, in one fell swoop. They act like they’ve got something to hide.”
Attorney General Brad Schimel, himself a Republican, issued a statement condemning the action.
"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 said.