Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday he has no plans to change the state’s open records law, even though his office laid the groundwork for a second attempt in July to allow legislators to override the law and make their own rules on what records are considered public.
A July 27 draft bill came weeks after lawmakers abandoned a state budget proposal that would have blocked virtually all lawmaker records from public scrutiny.
Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters Tuesday the idea behind the new draft bill was to demonstrate the Assembly’s “original intent” to amend the records law.
“We discussed it as a way to (document) information that we had originally requested” for the language added to the budget, Vos said.
The speaker said the draft bill was meant to provide a legislative study committee with the Assembly’s intent for the proposed open records changes — before other lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker’s office got involved.
Vos added, however, that Assembly members have not discussed forming a study committee this legislative session.
“We are not changing the open records law,” he said.
Under the draft bill, public disclosure of records created by lawmakers would not be decided by the state’s open records law, but by the legislature’s rules or policies. Lawmakers in one house wouldn’t need approval from the governor or from the other house to write such rules.
The bill also would allow private communication between nonpartisan legislative agencies like the Legislative Reference and Fiscal bureaus in order to draft memos and legislation for lawmakers.
The original proposal — unveiled July 2 — would have kept private most records and communication produced by state and local lawmakers, including memos, emails and drafting files of legislation.
By July 4, lawmakers had abandoned it in the wake of withering criticism from the public, open government advocates and liberal and conservative interest groups. Critics said the proposal would have prevented the public from learning how its government makes decisions.
Records obtained by the State Journal show that Vos sought the changes but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Walker’s office also were involved.
The liberal advocacy group Center for Media and Democracy on Tuesday first revealed the new effort to revise the rules.
In a statement, Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said the latest draft bill came from former staff lawyer Andrew Hanus to put “on record” which changes to the open records law the Assembly was seeking.
“Before the Speaker’s legal counsel left for a new position, he had the legislation drafted to include the items the Assembly wanted in the motion,” she said.
“We wanted it on record and to be transparent that there were only two changes that we wanted. It was done for future public discussions on the issue that will hopefully happen this session.”
Emails included in the bill’s drafting files obtained by the State Journal show Hanus requested an updated version of the bill to reflect just the two provisions on July 23, the same day the State Journal published a story that Vos had requested the more expansive proposal.
Even revised, the language should be as fiercely opposed, according to Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders.
“They can just unilaterally decide to pass a rule or policy to allow them to shut down access to the public,” Lueders said.
“It’s just as brazen, it’s just as cowardly and it’s just as despicable as the attempt they made earlier. It deserves the same response.”
Lueders said the draft bill implies lawmakers don’t want to work under public scrutiny.
“If these people don’t want to operate in an environment where the public has some ability to see what they are doing, they should get the hell out of politics — do something else,” he said. “Robin Vos can devote himself full-time to his popcorn business.”
Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement Tuesday he supports a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the state’s open records law in the state’s constitution, requiring a referendum to change the law.
Vos said Tuesday he does not support such an amendment because he wants to ensure that when people petition their government officials, they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when discussing sensitive topics.
Vos said he’s open to making changes to the records law, but it’s not a priority this session.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said, “Our focus is 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.”
Anne Schwartz, spokeswoman for Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, said Schimel has not reviewed the draft language.
Schimel held an open records summit in July and has called for the records law to be updated. He publicly criticized the original changes to the law proposed in July.
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