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The 'me-first' session? 10 ways Walker and the Republican-led Legislature have moved to diminish accountability


Gov. Scott Walker's administration has caught heat for denying records requests citing a "transitory records" provision — records considered to have no long-term value. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Scott Walker signed an executive order pledging to “go above and beyond the requirements of the Public Records Law and promote easier, fairer and broader access to public records.”

That order creates a system for citizens to monitor the performance of state agencies. He debuted his Open Book website in 2014, which has gotten favorable reviews for user friendliness and how it catalogs state spending, though it does not offer specifics on what services or goods were purchased. 

These initiatives stand in contrast to a pattern of attempts by the Walker administration and the Republican-led Legislature to eliminate or diminish mechanisms of accountability across state government. With wide majorities in the Assembly and Senate, Republicans have said changes are needed to modernize state government so that it can operate more efficiently and spur job growth and economic investment in the state. 

Throughout the just-ended legislative session, from January 2015 through March 2016, Walker and legislative leaders moved to alter structures of accountability in state government at least 10 times, including proposals to exempt lawmakers from public records laws, tilt the partisan balance or eliminate the independence of several oversight committees, and remove disclosure mandates and qualifying exams from the state’s campaign finance and civil service laws, respectively.

“It is an unprecedented list of ‘me-first’ legislation,” said Bill Kraus, 90, a former Republican strategist and chief of staff under Republican Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus. He now serves as chairman of the board of directors for Common Cause Wisconsin, a nonpartisan, open government advocacy group.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before and I’ve been watching the Legislature for a long time,” said Kraus, who has been involved in politics since 1952. “The majorities always take some advantage of their position, but this is sort of continuous and relentless.”

The changes have corroded state government's traditional emphasis on checks and balances, Kraus said.

“When you start clicking off what they have done about how government works, it’s all about them, it’s about protecting them,” he said.

But former Republican state Sen. Mike Ellis, of Neenah, who served in the Legislature for 32 years beginning in 1983, disagreed that the changes have been significant.

“I didn’t see any major alterations in terms of transparency or open government. It was pretty much what we got under Doyle,” said Ellis, who was honored for his service in a resolution by the state Senate last week.

Tim Cullen, a former Democratic senator first elected in 1974, published a book in December cataloging what he argued was a shift in state government’s approach to transparency since Walker took office.

“I’ve never seen just across the board in a huge number of areas, attempts to hide what’s going on,” Cullen said. “This is the governor who has led the effort to shut down disclosure for the last couple of years, with concrete changes."

Walker’s executive order doesn’t mean much “if you look at them in the context of what he tried to do legislatively and administratively over the last couple of years,” Cullen said.

The caucus scandal of 2001, which revealed the widespread practice of legislative staffers in both parties campaigning on state time, was a "real eye opening moment in state government," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. Bipartisan consensus regarding elections monitoring followed, leading to the creation of the Government Accountability Board, Heck said. But that came, in part, as a result of decades of open-government neglect.

"It was really benign neglect of the strong structure we once had in Wisconsin. We did not improve and bolster and strengthen the safeguards we had in place that we had in the 1970s," he said. "A disclosure system, a strong open records law, strong open meetings law, those were all creatures of the late 1970s after the Watergate scandal in D.C."

Gov. Jim Doyle campaigned on a reform agenda, but largely dropped it when he took office, Heck said. 

"The opportunity to really reform the system was probably lost during the Doyle administration," he said. Walker was expected to be a departure from previous Republican executives, who have historically governed in a bipartisan, consensus-seeking way, Heck said. 

"It's shocking to see the extent (Walker) went in the other direction," he said. 

The moves to alter state government have not gone without criticism from some Walker appointees. Peter Bildsten, former secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions, and Paul Jadin, former head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., have said the Walker administration ordered them to avoid using state email and phones to limit the creation of public records. Several Republicans voted against the budget last year, citing the breadth of policy and institutional changes it included.

Former Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who bucked his party by opposing Act 10 — which gutted collective bargaining for most public employees — and has been an outspoken critic of his fellow Republicans since leaving office, said citizens are becoming increasingly angry about politicians making government less accountable. It’s a dynamic reflected in the current presidential race, he said.

“The anger that people have is a direct result of what they see happening as making the political process less accountable to them. It’s not any one of these things, it’s sort of an additive effect,” he said.

Here are 10 moves by the Walker administration and Legislature to remove mechanisms of accountability from state government.

 1. Walker budget proposal to merge the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, creating the Forward Wisconsin Development Authority, March 2015

Walker's budget included a proposal to merge the two agencies, creating the Forward Wisconsin Development Authority. The FWDA would have included only private sector appointees, selected by Walker and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. The new agency would also have been exempt from a biennial financial audit from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, currently required of WEDC. It would have been subject to a program evaluation audit of its economic development programs funded by state money.

The new authority would also have had a new power: to establish a nonprofit organization without the approval of the legislative Joint Finance Committee. The proposal drew criticism from lawmakers who said the board should have legislative oversight. Open government advocates also questioned a provision in the plan for FWDA that would have specifically exempted personal and financial records from the state open records law. A few months after the proposal, Walker scrapped the merger plan. Status: DEAD

2. Walker budget proposal to reorganize Judicial Commission, April 2015

Walker’s biannual budget included a proposal to place the Judicial Commission, which investigates judicial misconduct, under the authority of the state Supreme Court, which it is tasked with monitoring. Under Walker’s proposal, funding and positions for the commission would have transferred to the Supreme Court and its independent status eliminated. The Judicial Commission has investigated three current Supreme Court justices over the last five years, issuing a warning to one and filing formal complaints against the other two. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Annette Ziegler raised concerns about the transfer. In 2008 Ziegler was reprimanded by the Judicial Commission for sitting in on cases involving West Bend Savings Bank when she was a circuit court judge. Her husband, developer J.J. Ziegler, serves on its board of directors.

The commission had previously been administered by the Supreme Court, but during a comprehensive reorganization of the state court system in 1978, it was made into an independent body, specifically to remove questions about conflict of interest. Legislators also considered a move to strip all funding from the Legislative Council, which makes recommendations to the Supreme Court, governor and Legislature regarding court procedures. Lawmakers said the move would have saved the state more than $220,000. Status: DEAD

3. Legislative proposal to abolish the Legislative Audit Bureau, June, 2015

One month after the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau issued a report critical of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation for failing to vet companies before awarding grants and follow up with those that received public money, Reps. David Craig, R-Big Bend, and Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, introduced a bill to abolish the audit bureau and replace it with independent inspectors general who would be placed in state agencies. The LRB’s audit found cases in which WEDC didn't comply with state law or its own policies, made awards without the proper review and didn't require confirmation that jobs were created after businesses received awards.

An analysis of the bill by the Legislative Reference Bureau said the bill would have allowed the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader to direct the inspectors to "audit the records of any state agency or program or any county, city, village, town, or school district." The bill failed to make it through the Legislature this session. Status: DEAD

4. Legislative proposal to rewrite the state’s public records law exempting elected officials from disclosure requirements, July 2015

A provision slipped into the state budget through the Join Finance Committee, the most powerful committee in the Legislature, would have rewritten the state’s public records law, preventing the public from accessing any records created by elected officials or their staff. The changes would have been retroactively applied to July 1, the day before the provision was introduced and the first day of the state’s fiscal year. The changes would have exempted lawmakers from disclosing any communications or drafts of legislation to the public. The provision was eventually stripped from the budget following criticism from numerous government watchdog and media groups. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald acknowledged that he, along with Assembly leadership and Walker’s officials, were all at the table when the changes were drafted.  

Several high-profile bills don't make the cut in 2015-16 session (copy)

The Wisconsin Legislature, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, left, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, moved to alter structures of accountability in state government at least 10 times in the last two years.

Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said during the committee debate over the proposed changes to the open records law that he thought they would help legislators follow the law, not hinder disclosure. He said it can be confusing, when developing legislation, to determine what’s a draft, what’s a note and what counts as a public record. He said during the committee’s debate that the “hyperbole” regarding the changes was “overblown.”

“I think that this serves to clarify and make it easier for us all to stay on the right side of the law and the rules,” Knudson said.

Status: DEAD

Walker's administration has also caught heat for denying records requests citing a "transitory records" provision — records considered to have no long-term value — in the state public records law. The Walker administration cited the provision when it denied a records request for text messages by the Wisconsin State Journal, and when the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now requested visitor logs to the governor's mansion earlier this year. The board later backed off the changes and is reviewing its policy.  

The Public Records Board, which creates policies on how long public records must be retained by all state agencies, updated its policy in December 2015 regarding what kinds of records can be thrown away immediately after being created. The eight-member board is made up of appointees. The governor appoints four members and the Wisconsin Historical Society, Legislative Audit Bureau, attorney general and state auditor each appoint one. Their new policy added training videos, routine agency communications and emails to schedule or confirm meetings or events to the classification of “transitory records.”

5. Legislative proposal to change the makeup of Wisconsin’s retirement system oversight committee, July 2015

Another provision in an early version of the state budget last year would have altered the makeup of a 10-member oversight committee established in 1947 to monitor the state’s Joint Survey Committee on Retirement Systems. The committee oversees the state’s retirement and pension system. The provision would have removed four non-legislative members from the committee — a representative from the attorney general, a public member, a representative from the commissioner of insurance and the secretary of the Employee Trust Funds — and leave the committee made up solely of lawmakers dominated by the majority party. The proposal was later pulled from the budget following protests from current public employees and public employee retiree groups. Status: DEAD

6. Law exempting political corruption cases from being investigated using the "John Doe" process, September 2015

The Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Walker in December, exempting political corruption crimes from being investigated through the John Doe process. The John Doe process enables prosecutors, with the approval of a judge, to compel testimony, execute search warrants, and investigate in secret, to determine whether there is enough evidence to indict. Prosecutors investigated Walker’s recall campaign with a Doe process, which was halted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Doe process also led to the prosecution and six convictions of Walker’s top aides during his time as Milwaukee County Executive. Now John Doe investigations can only be used to investigate the most severe felonies and some violent crimes. Status: PASSED, SIGNED Oct. 23, 2015

7. Law removing disclosure of a donor’s employer and occupation in state campaign finance law, December 2015

Walker signed a bill in December altering the state’s campaign finance laws and removing a mandate for contributors to disclose their employer. Under the previous law, donors who gave more than $200 were required to list both their employer and occupation. The bill also raised caps on contributions. As introduced, the campaign finance legislation would have allowed corporations, unions and Indian tribes to give unlimited contributions to political parties and campaign committees. The final law caps those contributions at $12,000, up from $10,000 per year.

It also doubled the amount that an individual can give to candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, state superintendent, from $10,000 to $20,000. Individual contributions to state Senate candidates are capped at $1,000 and $500 for Assembly candidates under current law. Although the law limits disclosure requirements of donors, it does require candidates and independent expenditure groups to file more campaign finance reports. Status: PASSED, SIGNED Dec. 16, 2015

8. Law dismantling the Government Accountability Board, December 2015

Walker signed a bill dismantling the Government Accountability Board, reverting to the former model of separate, partisan elections and ethics boards similar to the Federal Elections Commission. The GAB, made up of six nonpartisan former judges who are appointed by the governor and serve part time, began its work in 2008 following a 2001 scandal in which Democratic and Republican staffers were campaigning on state time. It was uniformly approved and endorsed across both parties.

The dissolution of the GAB has been a key change to how elections are monitored in the state. The board has been criticized by Republicans who say it has become too partisan in what it investigates and how. Earlier this year, the board settled a lawsuit with the head of a conservative group over its John Doe investigation of illegal campaign coordination during Walker’s recall campaign. 

Freshman Rep. Todd Novak, of Dodgeville, was one of three Republicans who voted against the destruction of the GAB. He said changes were needed, but not total elimination.

“I was hearing from my constituents who want me to be their independent voice and did not want a complete overhaul,” he said.

Ellis worked on legislation to establish the GAB and said he was disappointed in the board’s failure to vet signatures on the petition to recall Walker, which signaled to him that reform was needed, not all-out elimination. He favored cleaning it up, he said.

“The Government Accountability Board over the course of its life became selectively political and I think that the Government Accountability Board needed to be revisited. That doesn’t mean we needed to get rid of it,” he said.

The changes are set to take effect at the end of June. Republican legislative leaders called the board a "failed experiment," criticizing it for not checking for false and duplicate names on the recall petition for Walker and for participating in a parallel investigation into the financing of Walker’s recall campaign with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. After that investigation, legislative leaders announced their intent to make changes to the GAB. Later, the AP reported that Walker said he wanted to eliminate it altogether. Status: PASSED, SIGNED Dec. 16, 2015

9. Legislative proposal to establish law enforcement oversight committee that could operate in secret without recording votes, February 2016

A bill was filed in the state Assembly that would create a law enforcement oversight committee with new, unchecked subpoena powers to compel testimony and an ability to operate in secret, without recording minutes. The committee would have access to records from active police investigations and closed John Doe proceedings. Prosecutors, private attorneys and statewide law enforcement organizations opposed the bill and lobbied against it, arguing it would compromise sensitive investigations and lead to conflicts between the branches of government. The bill was not considered by the Assembly or Senate before both chambers adjourned in March. Status: DEAD

10. Law eliminating a qualifying exam for state positions with civil service system overhaul, February 2016

Walker signed broad changes to the state’s civil service system into law in February, eliminating a qualifying exam and instead relying on a resume-based hiring system. The changes replace a system more than a century old. Wisconsin was the third state in the country to establish the program in 1905 to prevent political preferences in public jobs. The new law includes a grievance process for workers and outlines when a worker can be fired, but shortens the window for employees to appeal a dismissal or disciplinary decision. Status: PASSED, SIGNED Feb. 12, 2016

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.