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Fitzgerald: Walker's Office Involved in Recasting Wisconsin's Open Records Law

Justin W Kern

UPDATE: Gov. Walker's office had a hand in crafting changes to Wisconsin's open records law, according to Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald said that leaders from the Senate, Assembly and Walker's office worked on the revisions with the governor's staff commenting about the many records requests it receives, The Capital Timesand WISC-TV  reports.

The Senate plans to delete most of the open records changes the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee added to the proposed state budget late last week. The revisions created an uproaracross the state. They would let elected leaders shield many of their communications.

The public outrage prompted Gov. Scott Walker to vow to remove the changes from the state budget, and let them resurface later as a separate issue.

Wisconsin’s open records law has been on the books for more than 30 years. Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee wanted to change the law, so that people could no longer access “deliberative materials” - anything used in the bill-making process.

“We would have gone from first to worst,” says Kathleen Culver.  She teaches in the journalism school at UW-Madison.  She says the state’s current open records law is one of the most expansive in the nation.

“The very core of the Wisconsin open records law is the presumption in favor of disclosure. The open records law asks all records custodians to weigh the interest in disclosure against the interest in withholding, but there’s always a thumb on the scale in favor of disclosure. The presumption always is open, unless there’s a strong reason for it to be closed,” Culver says.

Under Wisconsin law, anyone can make an open records request to obtain material state officials recorded while conducting government business. Culver says there are a few “reasonable” exceptions.

“There are exemptions for trade secrets, there are exemptions for confidential informants and there are exemptions that would put a person in danger. But, they’re very narrow and drawn in a limited way and purposely so,” Culver says.

Culver says Wisconsin’s law is even stronger than the federal Freedom of Information Act. She says she’s among those who would like to know who proposed changing Wisconsin’s law. Culver predicts several individuals or news organizations will submit an open records request to find out.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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