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This budget provision needs to go

POSTED April 2, 2017 4:56 p.m.

Five weeks ago I wrote on this page of your favorite weekly newspaper about two terrible bills in the Legislature for those who want to be informed citizens. 

Assembly Bill 70 and Senate Bill 42 would eliminate the requirement that government bodies publish municipal ordinances, governmental body resolutions, financial statements, budgets and meeting minutes.

A similar (and in some ways worse) effort is part of the proposed 2017–19 state budget. That budget provision would allow only publishing of what are called “class 1 notices,” listed one paragraph ago, on a municipal website, and not in print in the municipality’s official newspaper. There is no provision for how long the public notice must be on the website, which means it could be deleted when convenient in the mind of some politician. It also doesn’t specify the method for publishing — webpage, PDF, Word file, graphics file or whatever else.

I wrote five weeks ago that the bills were efforts to evade the state Open Meetings Law and state Open Records Law. So is this budget provision. Readers should ask themselves why legislative supporters of AB 70 and SB 42, and for that matter Gov. Scott Walker, are trying to hide public information that their constituents are entitled to be able to easily read. Remember when legislators tried to exempt themselves from the Open Meetings and Open Records laws around, of all times, Independence Day 2015? Lather, rinse, repeat.

Allowing municipalities and school districts to no longer print ordinances and meeting minutes in newspapers would put government in the position of reporting on itself. We have seen instances where meeting minutes get changed at the behest of an elected official, whose word about what he or she said we’re supposed to take over someone whose job duties include taking meeting minutes. Public notices require government to inform those paying government’s bills to let the citizens know what government is doing, including what takes place in meetings and what government passes into law.

Publication of public notices has worked to keep citizens informed for decades. We print public notices and verify that they’ve been printed. Newspapers are used in every state in the nation to print records of the activities of government and the court system. This system of letting the taxpayer and voter know what’s going on with their tax dollars by people they vote for isn’t broken.

The bills’ authors say that allowing governmental bodies to publish those notices on their websites would save taxpayer money. That creates the false choice between saving taxpayer dollars and keeping citizens in the dark about how their tax dollars are used. If you want someone to read something, you have to deliver it to them to read, not merely stick something somewhere on a website and hope they read it. (Or, perhaps, hope they don’t read it.) This is not saving money; this is a way for government to hide what it’s doing and spend far more tax dollars in far worse ways than the expenses of publishing public notices.

Government legal notices are already printed online at www.wisconsinpublicnotices.org, a website that costs neither government nor taxpayers nothing. Placing public notices on a city or village or school district website is a good way to make sure no one sees them. 

It may surprise people to realize this, but Internet access is nowhere close to universal even today. Unless you’re willing to fork over whatever CenturyLink, TDS or your favorite cellphone provider charges you every month, you’re not going to see those governmental notices. As I wrote before, one year of this newspaper costs about as much as a month of the lowest-price Internet service.

Sen. Howard Marklein (R–Spring Green) is on the Joint Finance Committee, whose first budget hearing will be at UW–Platteville Monday. Marklein can be reached at (608) 266-0703. Rep. Todd Novak (R–Dodgeville) has taken the correct position in opposing AB 70 and SB 42. Nevertheless, call Marklein, Novak and Rep. Travis Tranel, (608) 266-1170, and tell them to oppose Senate Bill 42, Assembly Bill 70 and any state budget provision that would allow government to do its business in the dark.

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