Gov. Scott Walker’s office was involved in drafting dramatic changes to the state’s open records law that would have made it harder for the public to monitor how its government works, a spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.
Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick’s statement came after numerous inquiries from the State Journal in recent days and after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Walker’s office collaborated with Assembly and Senate leaders to draft the changes.
Minutes after Patrick’s statement, the Senate voted 32-0 to remove the open records changes from the 2015-17 budget.
“Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation,” Patrick said. “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.”
Patrick’s statement said Walker’s office provided input after legislative leaders initiated the discussions.
“Our focus remains on ensuring open and accountable government, and we encourage public debate and discussion of any potential future changes to the state’s open records law,” she said.
“We had talked to them about open records issues and the amount of requests the governor gets,” Fitzgerald said, according to WISC. “The Assembly obviously was involved as well.”
Senators, including those on the Joint Finance Committee who initially voted to pass the changes, voted unanimously during a floor session Tuesday to undo them.
Since the committee members backed the changes Thursday, Walker’s office had not answered State Journal questions about the governor’s involvement in crafting them.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders said Tuesday he was glad Walker’s office was taking ownership.
“I think that’s the right thing to do,” Lueders said. “I think people do have a right to know where initiatives start, and that’s one of the lessons of this. That should be a baseline expectation.”
The changes would have blocked from release nearly all communications and records that help the public understand how lawmakers do their jobs. They generated backlash from the public, conservative and liberal advocacy groups, newspaper editorial boards, open government advocates and lawmakers from both parties.
The controversy erupted as the Fourth of July holiday loomed, and barely a week before Walker was scheduled to announce a bid for the 2016 presidential nomination.
“Clearly those changes would have been a huge blow to transparency. It would have removed information that is public, and it would have, in my opinion, inevitably led to abuse,” Lueders said. “It was pretty much all around a terrible idea.”
Walker, Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, announced Saturday that the records language would be removed from the budget and that a legislative committee would study possible changes.
Attorney General Brad Schimel has scheduled for late July a summit to discuss open records issues.
Lueders said the state shouldn’t restrict public access to information.
The undoing of the open records changes came just after a key Republican lawmaker apologized to voters for his part in passing them in committee.
Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said in a Monday email posted on the conservative website RightWisconsin that “after inquiries my understanding was” the changes would have made Wisconsin’s open records law similar to those in other states and that of the U.S. Congress “in order to facilitate more honest dialogue.”
“Since the vote this has been found to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “I apologize for not recognizing the scope of these changes.”
Kooyenga, the Joint Finance vice chairman, said in the email that he offered the explanation “not as an excuse, but as background information relevant to why the budget process should be improved to increase transparency.”
He said he is working on legislation that would require all budget motions to be posted 24 hours in advance of a committee’s vote to ensure lawmakers have time to read them, according to RightWisconsin.
Kooyenga’s apology stands in stark contrast to statements from Vos and JFC co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who defended the changes Monday. Nygren told the State Journal that news outlets have misrepresented the aim of the changes, which he said was to protect the privacy of constituents who communicate with lawmakers.
When asked how much Joint Finance members knew about the proposals ahead of the vote, Nygren spokeswoman Caroline Krause said Tuesday: “It’s up to each individual member to read the motion to know what they’re voting on, because Representative Nygren certainly knew what was in it.”
The other 10 Republicans on the committee did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment about their knowledge of the scope of the proposals ahead of the vote.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Tuesday that the scope of the changes was apparent as soon as Democratic committee members read the motion.
“It certainly hasn’t been a partisan criticism,” Hintz said of the reaction to the changes.
Another exemption to the state’s open records law contained in Walker’s original budget will remain, however. That provision would keep private finalists’ names for top positions at University of Wisconsin System campuses. Only the top candidate’s name would be released under the exemption.
The proposed changes to the open records law were included in a last-minute motion to amend the state budget and were released to the public and many lawmakers toward the end of the finance committee’s last meeting on Thursday — just before the committee’s members were set to vote.
They would have:
- Barred from public disclosure communications and records made by lawmakers and given them authority to keep staff communications private.
- Blocked access to files kept by the nonpartisan lawyers who write legislation; now those files are made public once a bill is introduced.
- Kept private “deliberative materials,” defined as “communications and other materials, including opinions, analyses, briefings, background information, recommendations, suggestions, drafts, correspondence about drafts, and notes, created or prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action or in the process of drafting a document or formulating an official communication.”