A review of hundreds of pages of newly released records shows that 1) Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, requested sweeping changes to Wisconsin's open records laws and 2) constituents were not happy about it.
Vos is cited as the "draft requester" of the legislation pertaining to "legislative privilege" in a June 29 email from Legislative Reference Bureau attorney Michael P. Gallagher, according to records released this week by the office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
The idea of limiting public access to legislative records was discussed as early as May 27, when Paul Onsager, a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analyst, emailed Fitzgerald aide Tad Ottman to ask whether such changes would be included in the Joint Finance Committee's "999" wrap-up motion to the state budget.
"We're still discussing that," Ottman replied. "At this point we are not pushing it but the Assembly is still looking at revised language."
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The newly released records were first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal.
It's unclear from the documents whether Vos or someone else was behind additional changes that would have severely restricted access to the public records of the Legislature and other elected officials throughout the state.
"Finally, if the legislative privilege stays in, that provides a good argument that drafting records held by members can be withheld under open records, in addition to the fact that (Legislative Reference Bureau) must keep them confidential. So, it's not necessary for the legislature, and I agree with Leg. Council that it would be advisable to take it out, if it's not being specifically asked for by the governor. Your call. Let me know," Gallagher wrote in an email to Vos aide Andrew Hanus.
Gallagher was referring to Section 7 of the bill, which included language to ensure "deliberative materials" were not considered public records.
Hanus corresponded with LRB attorneys, looping in Fitzgerald aides Ottman and Lucas Vebber, as the bill evolved over a series of drafts.
The proposal was approved by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee as part of the 67-item wrap-up motion, and swiftly removed in a unanimous Senate vote days later.
Just prior to its removal, Fitzgerald confirmed to reporters that he, Vos and Gov. Scott Walker's office were involved in discussions forming the proposal.
"So, was I there when it was being put together? Yeah, absolutely. I was there. We tried to put something together we thought that made sense. But it’s not going to be accepted publicly and that’s why we’re here pulling it back today," Fitzgerald said at the time.
Later that day, Walker's office acknowledged for the first time its role in drafting the proposed changes after hearing from legislators.
"Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation," Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email. "This allows for robust debate with state agencies and public employees over the merit of policies and proposed initiatives as they are being formed, while ensuring materials related to final proposals, as well as information related to external stakeholders seeking to influence public policy, would remain fully transparent."
Not only did the proposal anger journalists, good government advocates and members of the Legislature, it also spurred an onslaught of messages from concerned and outraged constituents.
The emails ranged from thoughtful to seething. There were librarians and former journalists who spoke about the importance of open government to their jobs, and there were the inevitable comparisons of elected officials to Adolf Hitler and Wisconsin to Nazi Germany.
Fitzgerald's office received more than 300 emails from constituents opposing the changes between July 3 and July 6, records show. Fitzgerald, Vos, Walker and Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said on July 4 they would completely remove the changes from the budget.
One email was addressed to "Mr. Putin," while another simply stated, "You should be charged with treason."
Another read: "Dear Assclown, WTF !!! Is there no end to your criminal behavior!!!!!!!!!! Your time will come. How dare your attempt to end Democracy in my State. You shameless money prostitute. How can you do this to the children of our state."
Former Oconomowoc Mayor Floss Whalen wrote the following: "I am 82 years old. I have one of the pens that signed one of the first open records laws in Wisconsin. I have always treasured it--and Wisconsin's open government approach. Until now! What are you thinking? Please restore the open records provisions of the law!"
Much like the groups opposed to the law, opposition among constituents transcended party lines. One man said the proposed changes made him "ashamed of being a Republican," while another said he feared the move would "end the Republican dominance in the state of Wisconsin."
Many writers also claimed to be contacting their legislators for the first time, prompted by their outrage over the proposal.
"As politicians, you might not like some of the information that is revealed when citizens or members of the media employ open records provisions to gain information, but that's part of the deal when you run for public office," read one email sent by a Republican voter and former journalist from Waukesha County. In the long run, transparency -- at all levels -- works to everyone's advantage even though it can be uncomfortable at times. Voters -- not just citizens, but people who actually vote -- support and respect their access to public information in Wisconsin."
Conservative talk radio host Mark Belling accused Darling and Nygren — including Fitzgerald on the email — of undoing "five months of good will" by "upset(ting) the apple cart" with "inflammatory garbage."
Nygren and other legislators who defended the changes have said their aim was to protect constituents who contact them about sensitive matters with an expectation of privacy.
"At the time of the email you reference, the concepts being discussed by Assembly Leadership were simple: Returning legislative powers ceded to the Executive Branch, and the idea that the legislature should be able to set its own common sense policies on open records and retention of drafting files. The intention was to study the practices around the country and update our policies to catch up with advances in technology, and to protect constituents," Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said in a statement. "As budget talks went on in to June and others engaged in the discussion, more ideas were added. What was voted on was ultimately a collaborative effort by the Senate, the Assembly, and the Governor's office."
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