The bottom of this page rotates among the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, its state equivalent (Article I, section 3), and the state Open Meetings Law and state Open Records Law.
The Open Meetings Law reads:
(1) In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.
(2) To implement and ensure the public policy herein expressed, all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.
The state Open Records Law reads:
In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. Further, providing persons with such information is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information. To that end, ss. 19.32 to 19.37 shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.
Those four are there to remind readers of our constitutional rights — not only the rights of those of us in the news media, but of every American and every Wisconsinite — and of our rights as taxpayers, whose tax dollars fund every legislator’s and every government employee’s salary.
We got a reminder late last week of how some of our supposed representatives feel about our rights when state news media reported on the attempt by legislative Republicans and apparently Gov. Scott Walker to eviscerate the Open Records Law to keep virtually all communications and records by legislators, staffers and others involved in the political process secret. State legislators would have been able to assert legal privilege and refuse to show any communication to anyone who requested it.
The GOP leaders were blasted, and rightly so, by not just every daily newspaper with an opinion page worthy of the name, but by liberal and conservative groups, liberal and conservative bloggers, and Democratic and Republican state legislators, for what should be obvious reasons.
The proposal stayed in the budget two days, until, on of all days Independence Day, Walker and Assembly and Senate GOP leaders issued a joint statement withdrawing the proposal, saying, “We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government. 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.”
I’ll pause here to let your boiling clouds of cynicism subside.
This comes at a time when the Obama administration is being called, by reporters who cover it, the absolute worst in history in terms of transparency, and when Hillary Clinton is running for president hoping everyone forgets the various scandals, many of which centered on lack of disclosure, while Bill was president and while she was secretary of state. It also comes at a time where local elective bodies demonstrate too often their lack of fealty to the concept of open government — most recently, the Grant County Board’s appointing two new county supervisors in separate processes designed to leave out the public. (Whether the process was legal or not, the intent to not open the process to all interested parties was obvious.) Now comes Wisconsin Republicans to demonstrate they’re really no different.
Nor are, it should be pointed out, Wisconsin Democrats. This was prompted, I believe, by the state Court of Appeals loss of Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D–Middleton), who refused to release the email addresses of state employees who sent him emails during the Act 10 debate. The MacIver Institute for Public Policy sued Erpenbach in Grant County Circuit Court, where he won, only to lose one level higher. (Actually, the taxpayers lost, since Erpenbach spent more than $170,000 in legal fees defending his ultimately losing position.)
This was a golden opportunity for Democrats to play both sides by angrily denouncing the proposal before the vote, and then refusing to eliminate it once Democrats return to power after some future election. This horrid GOP proposal benefits Republicans more only because Republicans are currently in power in Madison. The real beneficiaries of hiding what should be the public’s business are incumbent state legislators, be they Republican or Democrat.
More than one Madison source has told me that there is a potential issue with constituents wanting assistance with a state government issue, and sending various documents via email, which at the moment is a public record. In the pre-Internet days, such documents would be sent via mail. In the email age and our hyperpoliticized age, it is easier for a political advocate to ask for a legislator’s email, perhaps with nefarious (at least politically speaking) intent.
To that, the answer is either: The Legislature needs to come up with a very, very narrow fix, or perhaps it can’t and shouldn’t try. The answer is absolutely not to trash the Open Records Law, or even to make it apply to every governmental body except the state Legislature. We have too much of that already in government.
The Open Meetings Law and Open Records Law were passed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed by a Republican governor. In more than three decades of Republican, Democratic and split party control of the Legislature and Republican and Democratic governors, there has been no need to change the Open Meetings and Open Records laws. The fact we live in more partisan and politicized times today changes nothing.
The people paying for government — which expenses include the nearly $50,000 each state legislator gets in pay — have an absolute right to know what government at every level, including government employees and politicians, is doing with their tax dollars.