Gov. Scott Walker pointed the finger at Republican lawmakers Friday on a widely criticized proposal to curtail Wisconsin’s open records laws, calling it “a huge mistake” that didn’t originate in his office.
“I think it was a mistake to even think about it in the budget, even though it didn’t come from us,” Walker told radio host Charlie Sykes on Friday.
Walker’s office earlier this week acknowledged it helped draft the changes, which were stripped from the 2015-17 budget after a fierce outcry from conservatives and liberals alike, including a broad array of lawmakers, open government advocates and media organizations.
The proposed changes, unveiled publicly hours before they were added to the budget in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week, would have made secret nearly all communications and records that help the public understand how lawmakers and other public officials do their jobs. The changes would have kept secret “deliberative materials” documenting how public officials make decisions, communications and records made by lawmakers and files kept by nonpartisan lawyers who write legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Tuesday that Walker’s office collaborated with Assembly and Senate leaders to draft the changes.
Sykes, while interviewing Walker on his radio show, asked the governor to clarify his role in the process.
“That was brought to us by the Legislature and they said they wanted to look at it and wanted our input,” Walker told Sykes, according to the website Right Wisconsin. “We brought up some things that we still think are legitimate in terms of records that involve things like having our staff giving you options on briefings and things like that. Not anything that’s external in that regard.”
A spokeswoman for Fitzgerald said in an email Friday that he has nothing to add to his previous public remarks about the open records changes.
There was no immediate response Friday to inquiries to the offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and the co-chairs of Joint Finance, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.
Vos and Nygren have said the proposed changes stemmed from a desire to protect the privacy of constituents who contact their lawmakers.
On Thursday, the Wisconsin Assembly voted 96-1 to adopt a resolution aimed at reinforcing lawmakers’ commitment to open government. Lawmakers now plan to form a Legislative Council committee to study possible changes to the open records law.
“I think the whole thing was a huge mistake, and I think it’s right to send it to the Legislative Council,” Walker told Sykes Friday.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers on Friday linked the proposed open records changes to Republicans’ calls for change at the Government Accountability Board, which oversees the state’s campaign finance, elections, ethics and lobbying laws.
Vos and Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, called Friday for an overhaul of the agency. Nygren and Darling called for its director, Kevin Kennedy, to step down after the Wall Street Journal editorial page reported the board, while looking into the activities of conservative groups in Wisconsin, was in contact with the Internal Revenue Service.
The Journal said Kennedy’s emails show he’s friends with Lois Lerner, the former IRS supervisor who was a central figure in that agency’s review of conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status.
“We have repeatedly seen unethical behavior from the very agency that is supposed to be the state authority on ethics and elections,” Vos said in a news release.
Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha said those efforts by GOP lawmakers, coupled with the attempt to roll back open records laws, show they want to curtail transparency at the Capitol.
“It is deeply disturbing that a week after trying to dismantle our state’s open records laws and a day after Assembly Republicans refused to pledge not to degrade Wisconsin’s open records law in the future, Republicans are again attacking our state’s nonpartisan government oversight agency,” Barca said.