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Politics & Government

Widespread Criticism of Plan to Limit Access to Public Records in Wisconsin

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Proposed rollback of open records law stuns many

Update: Gov. Walker says he and Republican legislative leaders (Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Joint Finance Committee Co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren) have decided to remove open records changes from the state budget and instead form a committee to study the issue.

Tucked inside the proposed state budget the Joint Finance Committee advanced late Thursday, is a provision to exempt most state and local government officials from Wisconsin's open records law. The public could be denied access to many communications involving those elected leaders, in their official capacity.

The committee advanced the package on a 12-4 vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats voting against the proposal. It is not known who drafted or recommended inclusion of the proposed open records change, but opposition seems almost universal.

On Friday, Wisconsin's GOP Attorney General Brad issued a statement criticizing the provision.  "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 wrote.

Bill Lueders, head of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council slammed the measure saying "the records these changes would seal off have, on countless past occasions, been used to expose wrongdoing and provide essential information on the workings of government." He adds that such a monumental policy item has no business being part of a state budget.

President Brett Healy of the John K MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a right-leaning think tank which sued a Democratic legislator to turn over records wrote, "Transparency in government is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a good government issue. Taxpayers deserve access to to government records, so they can keep politicians across this great state honest and accountable."

The Madison Society of Professional Journalists also took a swipe at the plan. It urged the Legislature to remove the language from the budget bill. "Under this proposal, you may avoid an unflattering news story now and again, but you will have done lasting damage to the democratic process in Wisconsin. It is also disappointing that the Joint Finance Committee included this language in the 999 Motion on the final day of its work with little opportunity for public debate, and on the day before a long July 4th holiday weekend during which our country celebrates its freedom and independence – including the First Amendment," the group said via a written statement.

According to a release from the governor's office over the weekend, Walker insists GOP leaders "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," Walker wrote.

The budget committee's plan next goes before the state Assembly and Senate and must be signed by Gov. Walker, who can veto portions.