Top Assembly Republicans on Monday defended their party’s attempt to dramatically alter the state’s open records law — a proposal that was swiftly scrapped over the weekend in response to broad public condemnation.
Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said the plan had the input and support of legislative leaders from both houses.
It was the first time key lawmakers took responsibility for the proposed changes, but the specific authors remained unclear Monday — in part because the language was added at the last minute to the 2015-17 spending plan as part of a catch-all motion in which amendments aren’t linked to sponsors, as usually happens with legislation.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to questions. His caucus was meeting Monday afternoon to hash out final changes to the budget before a floor vote as early as Tuesday.
But Sen. Alberta Darling, who with Nygren co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee that passed the changes, suggested not everyone was happy with the language. She declined to say who first requested the changes be added to the budget — or who opposed them.
“It’s not going to do any good to name names,” she said in a brief State Journal interview. “Some of us did not like it from the get-go.”
Darling, R-River Hills, also denied that Gov. Scott Walker was involved in the discussions.
Nygren, R-Marinette, said in an interview that the goal of the proposed changes was to protect constituents, and he said news outlets have misrepresented the intent.
“In my view, there should be some privacy for constituents to contact my office. You guys don’t give a (expletive) about that,” Nygren said. “All you want to do is make this about, somehow, that we’re stifling transparency for the press.”
Speaking in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio earlier Monday, Vos, R-Rochester, echoed that reasoning and said there was “nothing sinister” about the open records changes or lawmakers’ decision to scrap them less than 48 hours after they were made public.
“We want to ensure that if somebody writes their legislator, they should know that the comments that they make and the words that they say have some ability to be protected, so they can’t be targeted,” said Vos, R-Rochester.
But the scope of the changes was much broader. 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.”
Nygren said he’ll continue to push for an assurance of privacy for constituents who contact their lawmakers — while acknowledging the proposed open-records changes were far broader.
“You can tell my passion on this because I do believe that that’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “So I’m not going to personally back away from that belief.”
Walker and top GOP legislators ditched the changes within 48 hours of introduction after scathing criticism from both conservative and liberal organizations, newspaper editorial boards and Democratic and Republican legislators. Many said the changes would provide lawmakers a springboard into a pool of unfettered corruption.
Vos listed a handful of reasons for the changes, including better collaboration among legislative service agencies, staff and lawmakers, and to ensure “constituents, when they contact their lawmaker,” aren’t “targeted by groups who would have nefarious reasons.”
“All of those, I thought, at least when we had the discussion, were worthwhile,” Vos said. “But obviously, a lot of folks had serious concerns about them. And the most obvious part of our job is to make sure we’re responsive to people who have questions.”
Vos said any future changes would be reviewed by a legislative study committee with a more open process.
Walker mum on role
Walker’s office remained silent Monday about what role he or his office played, if any, in crafting the language, even as critics pointed out it has already been denying records requests this year using a similar rationale to one of the proposed changes.
That language is similar to language used by Walker’s office to deny several organizations, including the State Journal, access to an unknown number of records related to the crafting of a budget provision that altered the University of Wisconsin mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea. The response came three months after the initial request.
The rationale for the denial was that the withheld records included “preliminary analysis and deliberations” and their disclosure “would discourage frank internal discussion and harm the quality of the final executive decision.”
“Further it would disincentivize the free exchange of emails and written documentation necessary to hone the precise language and calculations that are key to proper budget development,” wrote Greg Murray, chief legal counsel for the state Department of Administration, and David Rabe, a lawyer in Walker’s office. “The public interest in protecting the quality of the executive decision-making process and maintaining the efficiency and efficacy of the budget writing process outweighs the public interest in the release of these materials.”
The liberal Center for Media and Democracy and Progressive Magazine filed lawsuits in May seeking the release of the Wisconsin Idea records.
Walker’s spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the Walker administration’s involvement in the proposed changes.
Twelve Republican lawmakers on the state’s budget writing committee approved the changes late Thursday.
Democrats called Monday for legislation requiring all budget items without a price tag to receive separate public hearings in the relevant legislative standing committee.
“Where did those come from? That should be an easy answer for them to give,” said Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Milton. “The fact that we don’t have that being answered like we should leads me to believe, and anyone with half of a brain to believe, that they are hiding something.”