An attempt to revise the state Open Records Law to largely exclude state legislators’ communications ended before the state Legislature got a chance to vote on it.
Deliberations by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee ended Thursday with what is called an “omnibus 999” motion, which included a proposal to allow legislators to shield communications with constituents, staffers and others from Open Records requests. The proposal would have blocking current and former staff from releasing information, and eliminated retaining drafting versions of legislation.
The omnibus motion passed 12–4, with state Sen. Howard Marklein (R–Spring Green) voting for it.
The proposal quickly came under fire by media outlets, liberal and conservative advocacy groups, and state Attorney General Brad Schimel as a significant step back in open government and transparency.
One day after the JFC vote, Gov. Scott Walker said he would work with Republican leaders to modify the proposal. One day after that, on Saturday, Walker and Senate and Assembly Republican leaders announced the proposal would be removed from the budget.
Marklein was in Platteville Saturday morning for a speech during the 4th of July Celebration ceremony in City Park.
Marklein said he voted for the omnibus motion because the Open Records Law changes were part of more than 60 parts in the motion.
State Rep. Todd Novak (R–Dodgeville) said the omnibus motion included “a couple of things for this district.”
Still, Marklein said before the Walker/GOP announcement, “Government needs to be open and transparent. We need to preserve that, regardless of what happens. With this legislation, my office will not change our policy on access and open records.”
Marklein predicted Saturday morning that the proposal would be “either removed from the budget or will be modified.”
The proposal was unique in attracting opposition from across Wisconsin’s political spectrum.
“Where does this come from?” said Rep. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City) Friday, blasting the measure. “I am an advocate for open government,” he added, saying the item had to be stripped from the budget.
“I knew it was going to be dead Friday,” said Novak, who worked for the Dodgeville Chronicle before he was elected to the Assembly in 2014.
One rationale some legislators cited was the need for privacy when legislators deal with constituent issues involving government. The state Open Records Law mandates that communications, including letters and emails, are public records. That includes communications between state legislators and their staffs, for, for instance, a constituent problem a legislator learns about when in his or her district.
“It can be a problem,” said Novak. “I’ve had constituents that have contacted me with some pretty personal issues” that involved the departments of Revenue and Workforce Development, and Office of Unemployment Compensation. “They do give you some personal information, which is open records.”
But, Novak added, “The way to address it is to make it very narrow in scope. … Coming from a newspaper background, I can’t see any newspaper in the state publishing personal information. It is an issue and it’s concern of many of us, but it needs to be very, very narrow.”
When asked who introduced the Open Records exemption to the JFC budget proposal, Marklein said, “I have no idea.” Other news media have gotten similar answers from JFC members.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told the Wisconsin News Service Tuesday he would pursue finding out who introduced the proposal, into the court system if necessary.
“The responsibility for this, we know, goes much deeper than just the people who came up with these horrible ideas,” Lueders told WNS. “My intention will be to litigate this. I will sue them if they deny me access to that information.”