In the face of withering criticism, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican leaders of the Legislature announced Saturday that a provision added to the state budget to gut the open records law “will be removed from the budget in its entirety.”
Walker made the announcement Saturday afternoon in a joint statement with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Joint Finance Committee co-Chairs, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.
“We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government,” the statement said. “The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents’ privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.”
The statement said the Legislature will form a Legislative Council committee to study the matter outside of the budget process.
No one claimed responsibility for requesting the language be added to a sweeping omnibus amendment the Legislature’s budget committee passed late Thursday. And it’s unclear what role, if any, Walker played in the drama over the past few days.
But amid near-universal condemnation of the move and bipartisan demands that the language be withdrawn or that Walker use his partial veto power to strip it out of the budget if it passed, the governor and the leadership conceded defeat on the issue.
Republican leaders have refused to say who initially sought the changes or why.
Among other things, the revisions would have rendered secret virtually all records and communications by lawmakers and policymakers at the state and local levels.
Drafting files for legislation would have no longer been public, and legislators would have been granted a “legal privilege” or right to refuse to disclose any communication that occurred during the lawmaker’s term in office.
The measure, which Darling and Nygren allowed to be added to the omnibus motion, stunned advocates of open government and prompted many lawmakers, including some Republicans, to pledge not to vote for a budget that contained the items.
“I’m glad they’re taking it out,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “But just the fact that they even tried to do this in the first place should bother everybody in this state.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, took issue with Saturday’s statement that the changes were “never intended to inhibit transparent government.”
“That is a transparently false statement,” Lueders said. “This was specifically and deliberately intended to inhibit transparency.”
Lueders said his organization would continue to join those trying to find out whose idea it was and who signed off on it.
“I think there ought to be some political consequences for this,” Lueders said.
Twelve Republican lawmakers on the budget committee approved the omnibus measure Thursday, while all four of the panel’s Democratic members opposed it.
Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said before he voted for the changes Thursday that they would clarify the definition of what a public record is and keep lawmakers on the right side of the law.
But Erpenbach urged the committee’s majority not to pass the changes, saying the vote would solidify the committee’s legacy as one of secrecy.
Erpenbach said he was not surprised at the public outcry over the changes and the fact that opposition came from across the political spectrum.
“This specific issue cuts across every single political ideology out there,” Erpenbach said. “This is something that everybody can understand in two seconds. Everybody gets transparency in government.”
Erpenbach said he was told by Republicans on the committee that Walker had “signed off” on the changes and told them he would not veto it.
“There is not any governor who doesn’t know what ends up in the budget before it gets to his desk,” he said. “It did come from the governor, in my opinion, and a couple of legislators who obviously have something to hide.”
The growing clamor over what was, effectively, the repeal of Wisconsin’s decades-old open records law presented an unwelcome distraction for Walker a week before he formally announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president.
His office has declined to say whether the governor was involved in drafting the changes and initially demurred when asked whether Walker would support or veto the provision, later saying he would work with legislators to make unspecified changes to it.
But Walker told reporters at Wauwatosa’s Independence Day Parade Saturday that he had “a lot of concerns about” it, and issued the joint statement hours later.
Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, welcomed the news of the reversal and thanked open-government advocates for instigating the change.
“Wisconsin newspapers write the history of the state of Wisconsin and we are extremely happy and proud to chronicle this victory for continued government transparency,” Bennett said.
State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.