The front-page, above-the-fold headline in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel probably won’t make Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) happy. “Walker office admits role in open records proposal,” it reads.
At issue is a controversy we covered on Monday. To briefly recap, last Thursday, shortly before the start of a holiday weekend and in a late-night session, Republican state legislators quietly added a provision to the budget to gut Wisconsin’s open-records laws. The point wasn’t subtle: the policy would have “dramatically curtailed the kind of information available to the public about the work that public officials do.”
GOP lawmakers approved the change, but when reporters noticed, they quickly backpedaled – not only was the proposal soon dropped, but the Republicans involved each denied having anything to do with it.
Of course, it wasn’t a miraculous budget provision, appearing by magic; someone had to put it there. And so, we had a mystery – who tried to gut Wisconsin’s open-records law and why?
Before anyone dismisses this as a story of little interest outside the Badger State itself, there’s a reason national outlets are keeping an eye on this one. Indeed, the Wisconsin State Journal reported overnight:
Gov. Scott Walker’s office was involved in drafting dramatic changes to the state’s open records law that would have made it harder for the public to monitor how its government works, a spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick’s statement came after numerous inquiries from the State Journal in recent days and after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Walker’s office collaborated with Assembly and Senate leaders to draft the changes.
In a press statement, the governor’s spokesperson said, “Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation. This allows for robust debate with state agencies and public employees over the merit of policies and proposed initiatives as they are being formed, while ensuring materials related to final proposals, as well as information related to external stakeholders seeking to influence public policy, would remain fully transparent.”
As TPM’s report noted, it matters that the Republican governor would seek new exemptions from open-records laws since Walker is currently facing a lawsuit “for refusing to turn over certain documents in a public records request.”
Just so we’re clear, the proposed changes are no more – GOP officials have given up on the idea, at least for now, and the Wisconsin state Senate voted 32 to 0 yesterday to scrap last week’s controversial plan.
But that doesn’t mean the story is necessarily over. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial page yesterday called for a more thorough examination.
Facing a hurricane of criticism, Gov. Scott Walker and state legislators have scrapped – at least for now – a brazen attempt to limit access to state public records. But that by no means is an end to the issue; there are still questions that need to be answered. […]To borrow a phrase: What did Gov. Scott Walker know and when did he know it? Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Walker’s office was involved with creating the exemptions, and Walker’s spokeswoman confirmed that. But before participating in Wauwatosa’s Independence Day parade Saturday, Walker told reporters that he had “a lot of concerns” about the proposals.If he had concerns, what was the extent of his involvement? … A more detailed explanation of the governor’s involvement in making these changes is certainly warranted.
Let’s not overlook the timing of the story – Walker is scheduled to kick off his presidential campaign next week.