Wisconsin joins lawsuit over rule allowing clinicians to refuse abortions (copy)

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, left and Gov. Tony Evers. 

The Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee, controlled by Republicans, has put off acting on a proposed settlement from Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul relating to an unknown lawsuit that reportedly began under his Republican predecessor.

The move, which came Tuesday during a Joint Finance Committee meeting, was precipitated by the passage of the December lame-duck laws that curbed the power of Kaul's position before he took office, and require him to seek permission from the panel before settling a case, among other measures.

It appears Tuesday was the first time Kaul officially brought a case he's working on before the body for review, though lawmakers didn't get far during their closed-session conversation before the discussion halted when Kaul asked members to sign non-disclosure agreements in order for him to share details of the case. Neither Democratic or Republican members did. 

After its rare closed-session meeting, the committee then convened in open session to take up two separate motions surrounding the unnamed case, one backed by Democrats and another from Republicans.

But Kaul, who sent an email to lawmakers Friday saying he wanted to meet to discuss the case, noted there could be "significant harm to the state" including financial ramifications if lawmakers don't sign the agreements. He said he wouldn't move forward without signed confidentiality statements.  

"We have offered what I think is a fairly straightforward solution to moving forward at least with the resolution of this one case, so we do have a way to move forward," he said, later adding: "I really don’t want to see what should be a procedural matter of signing this agreement get in the way of our moving forward in the interest of the state."

The committee’s GOP co-chairs countered in a statement after the meeting ended that signing a confidentiality agreement is unnecessary because “they have agreed to keep information confidential in closed session.”

Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren also pointed to a letter from last week they sent to Kaul that said the sessions are designed to “handle sensitive—often confidential—information, including negotiating union contracts.” And they pledged that any confidential information discussed in the session would “be kept in confidence.”

“We recognize the sensitivity of these issues and wish to work with the Attorney General, but signing a confidentiality agreement is a nonstarter,” the pair said in the statement. “The fault lies at the feet of Attorney General Kaul who is once again attempting to undermine the law."

Still, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said there isn’t anything in the open meetings law that “prohibits someone in attendance from talking about what transpired.”

Democrats, meanwhile, lobbed criticism at their GOP counterparts over the execution of the lame-duck laws, as they pushed their motion to let Kaul move forward with the case without Joint Finance Committee involvement. The attempt failed on a party-line vote. 

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, slammed Republicans for "tying (Kaul's) hands" with the December extraordinary session laws. She noted Kaul is caught between "preserving the confidentiality" in a legal case and "complying with lame-duck laws that don’t let you do that" because of the requirement to seek legislative approval before settling a suit. 

"This mess was created by my Republican colleagues, that’s why we’re here. This attorney general is trying to do his job and my republican colleagues have made that impossible," she said. "Either he violates one law or he violates another."

Nygren, R-Marinette, defended the process and said while lawmakers were still unaware of what the particular case is, "there has been more discussion about this process today than ever before in the history of settlements in Wisconsin," and the "process helps the public understand it better, not worse."

"We responded to be here to be able to take up something under consideration and unfortunately that has not been able to be accomplished today based on concerns from both sides of the aisle," Nygren said earlier in the meeting. 

Ultimately, the committee opted to advance a GOP-backed motion along a party-line vote that reflects "that the State of Wisconsin is a party (or real party in interest) of this case." 

It's unclear exactly what the language does, but Kaul told committee members it doesn't "impact how we move forward" in the case, and the DOJ will still need approval from the panel. 

A few GOP lawmakers, approached by reporters after the meeting, repeatedly ignored or declined to answer questions. GOP Sen. Luther Olsen, of Ripon, said he couldn’t say why Republicans wouldn’t sign the agreements and said he didn’t know if the committee would return.

Kaul is facing a Friday deadline to receive the go-ahead from members over the lawsuit. Few details were available about it, but Democratic committee members had signaled in their comments and questions that it is a multi-state suit that began under former Republican AG Brad Schimel. 

It's unclear whether the committee will meet again this week.  

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.