Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his allies in the GOP-led state legislature have taken some pretty brazen steps in recent years, but the recent controversy over the state’s open-records law was striking, even for them.
The Badger State is home to one of the more expansive open-records laws in the country, though late Thursday – shortly before the start of a holiday weekend – Republican officials went after state policy in ways few saw coming. The Wisconsin State Journal reported:
Legislative Republicans on Thursday passed sweeping changes to the state’s open records law that would dramatically curtail the kind of information available to the public about the work that public officials do.The proposal blocks the public from reviewing nearly all records created by lawmakers, state and local officials or their aides, including electronic communications and the drafting files of legislation.
As TPM’s Josh Marshall noted, of particular interest was a provision called a “legislator disclosure privilege,” which would have empowered state legislators to withhold official information about their work – a “privilege” that does not currently exist in any other state.
The Wisconsin State Journal piece added this gem: “Despite voting for the motion, Republican members of the panel all professed not to know who proposed the public-records changes.”
Got that? The day before a holiday weekend, during “a late-night session,” someone on the legislature’s budget committee – we don’t know who – quietly added a provision to scrap Wisconsin’s open-records laws. The budget committee then passed this on a party-line vote, with every Democrat voting against it and every Republican voting for it.
But when asked for an explanation, the GOP members themselves said they had no idea how the policy they voted for ended up in the document.
If the goal was to get this done without anyone noticing, the gambit failed miserably – the effort quickly generated quite a bit of attention, and as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, Republicans quickly changed direction.
Faced with a swift and fierce backlash, Republicans on Saturday abandoned a plan that would have gutted the state’s open records law.In a joint statement issued Saturday afternoon, Gov. Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders said the provisions relating to any changes to the law would be removed from the state budget.
The article added that Walker “did not specifically say whether he and his office were part of planning the proposed open records changes.”
If nothing else, the larger takeaway of this story is that the Republican governor and his allies are not completely immune to public pressure. Faced with intense criticism and no viable defense, Wisconsin Republicans will, evidently, back down and reverse course.