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Scott Walker under fire for state open-records law proposal

Walker backed away from a proposal that could have shielded his administration's records from public scrutiny.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is days away from announcing a run for president and will enter the race with as good a chance as any of becoming the party’s nominee. Back in his home state, though, the main story this week is not his impending run but an aborted attempt to tweak state law in order to make it harder to obtain information about his administration. The news is an unwanted distraction for Walker as he prepares to launch his campaign on Monday in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Republicans in the state legislature announced this week they were backing away from a proposal, which is tucked into a draft of the state budget, that would provide the governor’s office with broad new exemptions from records requests.

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"We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government," Walker said in a joint statement with legislative leaders on Saturday. "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."

News of the measure sparked an outcry heading into the July Fourth holiday weekend, including criticism from some Republican politicians like Attorney General Brad Schimel. It wasn’t initially clear who was behind inserting the proposal into the budget in the first place, and Walker initially declined to say whether he was involved. However, after the Republican State Senate majority leader indicated the governor's staff had been included in discussions, Walker's office confirmed to reporters that they were involved in the process. 

“By pushing these exemptions, it begs the question — what is Scott Walker trying to cover up?”'

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick told The Capital Times that the legislature made the first move, prompting them to offer their own suggestions.

"In response, our staff provided input regarding these proposed changes," Patrick 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."

The story took on extra momentum because of Walker’s battles over public records law in a recent controversy surrounding his policy towards the University of Wisconsin (UW). Earlier this year, Walker proposed a state budget that would change the language of the “Wisconsin Idea,” a set of principles guiding the UW system, to strike passages referring to a mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and pursue “a search for truth.”

The edits prompted an immediate backlash and Walker said he would drop the changes, which he blamed on a “drafting error.” But the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, using the state’s open-records law, reported that earlier emails and drafting documents showed administration officials insisting the university adopt the new language, prompting Politifact to award Walker’s explanation a “pants on fire” ruling.

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In another case involving the open-records law, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Walker’s aides pushed for a taxpayer-backed loan through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to a business owned by a Walker campaign donor. The governor called for an end to the WEDC loan program, citing a separate audit of its practices. 

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism noted this week that Walker has resisted turning over records related to the UW story by claiming an exemption from documents related to the “deliberative process” of crafting policy — a currently disputed explanation that the budget proposal his office dropped last week would have enshrined into law.

These are the kinds of process stories that usually don’t go too far in presidential contests but, in this case, the timing may give it greater weight as the likely campaign trudges on. It comes just as Republicans are piling on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton over a suite of transparency issues, from her use of a private email server to her rocky relationship with the national press. Democrats, not surprisingly, are eager to see a Republican under fire for their own transparency issues.

“By pushing these exemptions, it begs the question — what is Scott Walker trying to cover up?” DNC Spokesman Eric Walker said in a statement.